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Summer Learning Collaborative tackles summer learning achievement gap

Megan Pauly
Delaware Public Media
Campers attend Tyler's Camp - one of the bookend camps for the Summer Collab program.


Summer is a critical time for kids, with the achievement gap widening for many low-income kids.

Delaware Public Media’s Megan Pauly tells us more about a unique summer program aiming to help close that gap.


Barthelemy Atsin is a teacher from New York. He came to Wilmington to teach the basic principles of animation to low-income middle school kids for a week in June.

His curriculum is called space battle: with the kids creating models out of cardboard and other materials and then using Photoshop to make them animation ready.


Atsin has been excited to see the kids’ imaginations run wild, but says it’s taken a while to completely gain their trust.


"You know, trust is always a challenge with teaching," Atsin said. "And I don’t blame them. It’s like wait a minute, who are you? And then they realize oh, wow, this is actually really, fun. It’s cool. It’s summertime, it’s supposed to be fun. Then they’re like, oh ok, let’s keep trying this out."


Animation is one of many skills low-income kids are getting to learn this summer as part of the Summer Learning Collaborative, a non-profit spin off of Delaware’s Teach for America chapter.


When I visited the program a few weeks ago - some of the kids told me about their experiences: what they liked and what they didn’t.


"My name is Brian. I learned that you can help others through sports. My favorite sport is baseball, we’re going there right now. The one I didn’t like most is soccer, even though I’m Hispanic."


Catherine Lindroth worked for Teach for America while helping create the Summer Learning Collaborative, with the hope of placing teachers in community centers during the summer to build deeper roots in Delaware, and deeper connections to families and kids.


"When I was working for Teach for America we were here because of the opportunity gap," Lindroth said. "And our teachers were so appalled when they were seeing the struggle in community space and summer space and seeing how it’s been affecting their classrooms and their kids."


Lindroth believes deeply that all human beings deserve dignity, a belief solidified while living in India and Kenya during college. Her passion has carried over into the mission of the Summer Learning Collaborative.

Lindroth’s mission is also driven by a Johns Hopkins study showing a glaring widening of the achievement gap for low-income kids during summer months.


During what’s commonly referred to as the “summer slide,” most youth lose about two months of grade level equivalency in math, but low-income youth lose more than two months in reading achievement, while their middle-class peers see gains.


Lindroth’s solution to decreasing that achievement gap: Collab Camps with a unique core academic curriculum.  Now in their fourth year, 15 Collab Camps serve about 2,000 low-income kids in Wilmington this year from June 27th to August 5th


This summer is the first time the material is being shared with seven community centers, with over 600 kits of the special 2 ½ hour curriculum being distributed.

Credit Megan Pauly / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Catherine Lindroth, top left, meets with Summer Collab leaders.

  And there’s even a supply chain management system that’s run by high school students on site at the community centers: which Lindroth says is giving those students real world practical experience.


"These are really top-notch kids that we say, look: we think you can make a big impact," Lindroth said. "Their eyes light up when we’re interviewing them and we say, you’re going to not only design a supply chain system that works 100% of the time – and we’re going to hold you to that – but you’re going to analyze data, put together a presentation and present out every Friday in front of stakeholders and funders and each other in a professional learning community."


Devon O’Dwyer is the Operations Team Manager, managing a team of 16 operations specialists. It’s her third year working with the Summer Collab: she’s a student at Georgetown in DC but is back for the summer.


"We problem solve together," O'Dwyer said. "Because a lot of camps have similar challenges and it’s really helpful to put our heads together. I really think that’s the core of the collaborative: these community centers traditionally hasn’t had a lot of collaboration with each other and we see ourselves as a resource to pull all of our brainpower together."


O’Dwyer has helped design the data collection system which involves the flagging of “artifacts” – different academic pieces in the curriculum that are analyzed across the community centers.


"They can look at the curriculum and say, ok, here’s a math artifact, here’s a writing artifact," she said. "They’re taking student samples every single week and then on Friday they’re grading them on a rubric and then they’re pulling them into a report so we can track their progress from week to week."


Lindroth recognizes the impact summer programs can have not only on improving academic scores, but also helping the kids find their identity.

"But I really do think there’s something deeper going on with our kids in our communities and it has to do with identity," Lindroth said. "If you look at the average middle and high income experience in the summertime, you’re talking about kids going to sports camps, arts camps…kids coming to NASA. There are these experiences telling kids you can be somebody, you’re special."


Lindroth says that about three years ago, she began contacting all of the premier summer camps across the country because she believes that all kids deserve the best of the best.


Jocelyn Stewart is Director of Community Investment at Barclaycard and one of the non-profit’s board members.


"There was this opportunity to go from: let’s keep our kids safe and give them something to do to let’s close the achievement gap, " Stewart said.


She says the bar for the summer programs has been raised very high, helping to even the playing field for low-income kids.


"They’re not settling for what we think we can give these kids," she said. "They’re taking the best of the best and saying these kids deserve that. When you walk through their camps, it’s like the most extraordinary camps anywhere."


The Summer Collab partnered with Explo, one of the top summer camps in Massachusetts. Explo started consulting the nonprofit on how to grow their structure, and eventually started developing all camp leaders, who were flown to Boston to train.


"We’ve been working on camp leader professional development," Lindroth said. "Helping them to start to think about: if I were to have blue sky, like if I could do anything, what would I do? And then we give them the support to do that."


Lindroth says two years ago the Walnut Street YMCA threw out what it had been doing for a decade and implemented a new curriculum for the first time. They started design thinking with kids: figuring out what the kids wanted to do.


"If you look nationally at how people are trying to solve this summer learning problem, it looks a lot like instruction during the day and enrichment in the afternoon," Lindroth said. "So it feels very much like school in the morning. But what we want to do is help kids change the way they feel about school. We want them to change the way they feel about learning and really get in there and inspire their curiosity."


The curriculum is hands-on, project based. One lesson is called the Island Survival Challenge: where kids learn problem solving skills in a fun way. And now the core curriculum has bookend camps providing even more fun for the kids.


"And I think it’s a deeply important step," she said. "Because when you look around this joy and also this learning is so important. I mean, I was an athlete in college – I played field hockey – and I know that the person I am and the leader I am, much of that was learned on the field: team building, how to resolve conflict, how to lose, how to win…those things matter a lot in our education."


Lindroth believes these art and sport components are key components to the lasting classroom impact on the kids when they head into the next full school year.  


"I’ve seen children who are being praised by some of the volunteers that we have here," she said. "Wow, you’re such a great soccer player. Oh my gosh, you have talent at field hockey. You’re so good at coding. And they feel special, and their  posture changes. Their orientation towards what they’re doing changes. They’re more focused."


And she says she plans to measure this by looking at the kids’ academics and comparing them with data from control kids who weren’t in the summer programs.


"We’re very, very interested in making the case in the data about the importance of summer," she said.

The Summer Collab has seen an 86% learning loss reversal. In other words, instead of losing up to four months of learning, many gained up to three months.

Lindroth is proud of the progress her organization is making, but says there’s still a long way to go with 9,500 kids in Wilmington living below the poverty line and with only 1,200 slots available for summer programs offered through the city.



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