It Takes a Community

by Katie Willse, Chief Program Officer, National Summer Learning Association

Across the nation, community leaders have increasingly recognized the promise of summer to accelerate student learning. But to maximize collective impact and reach the greatest numbers of youth in need, communities must coordinate efforts across sectors, track and share data about existing summer learning opportunities and strengthen partnerships.

Research confirms that low-income youth tend to fall behind their peers in reading during the summer, with cumulative impact. One study attributes a substantial part of the ninth grade achievement gap in reading to disparities in summer learning opportunities during elementary school, and summer after summer of falling behind results in long-term consequences for youth.

Urban communities often have many summer learning programs, but lack access to basic data identifying where these programs are and what age groups they support, as well as more complex measures of quality. For example, a recent survey found 229 summer learning programs in Baltimore, but distinguishing them from summer meal sites, mapping their locations, and identifying the age groups each serves required a concerted effort.

Despite the variety of excellent summer learning opportunities across communities, programs often can only address a fraction of the need. Lack of access to program data and absence of stakeholder coordination compounds the problem. Communities need to work together systematically to tackle summer learning loss, so they can leverage existing resources to provide more summer learning opportunities for youth, improve program quality, and ultimately improve outcomes for youth.

The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) helps communities across the country build summer learning systems to better serve families and youth. NSLA has provided extensive support to cities such as Newark, Baltimore, Birmingham, Grand Rapids and New York City. NSLA’s Community Indicators of Effective Summer Learning Systems (CIESLS), developed in collaboration with city leaders, serve as a roadmap in building high-quality summer learning systems. Based on systems research, best practices in afterschool and summer system-building, and a survey of community intermediaries and program providers, these indicators measure progress in achieving system-building milestones in six key areas, which are close cousins of the five conditions of collective impact:

  • Shared Vision and City-Wide Coordination – A shared vision for summer learning, which informs a community-wide action plan, can support collaboration among a diverse group of stakeholders and support collaboration.
  • Engaged Leadership –Community stakeholders and champions advocate for summer programming, coordinate progress towards summer priorities, and share accountability for the development and implementation of a summer learning action plan.
  • Data Management System – Community stakeholders implement processes for data collection, sharing and analysis.
  • Continuous Quality Improvement – Community stakeholders adopt a process for quality improvement at both the systemic and programmatic levels.
  • Sustainable Resources – Funding targets and strategies exist for both program implementation and growth, and system capacity-building.
  • Marketing and Communications – Community plans include strategies to understand the demand for summer learning, to build awareness of the need and of available resources and to support youth recruitment and enrollment.

This resource has helped many communities better understand their summer learning needs and strengthen their summer learning offerings as a whole. With NSLA’s support, for example, Newark, N.J., leaders convened more than 100 stakeholders, assessed its summer learning landscape, identified gaps and built a common vision for coordinating, expanding and strengthening high-quality summer learning opportunities for more youth.

Many of Newark’s children and youth are at risk of summer learning loss. In 2012, a report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey found that about 43 percent of Newark’s children lived in poverty. That same year, more than 80 percent qualified for free- or reduced-price lunch during the school year. Despite the need, available data from 2010 and 2011 identified only 14,000 slots in summer programs —which would serve just 31 percent of Newark’s 46,000 school-age youth.

Newark’s leaders used NSLA’s community indicators to develop a summer learning action plan, which was presented at a forum and is included in the Community Assessment of Newark, NJ, publication. The plan articulates strategies for Newark to take collective action in each of the six domains.

Newark’s leaders have embraced the call-to-action to come together to expand summer learning to more youth. In summer 2014, Newark Public Schools launched a revamped summer program, called Summer Plus, which will connect academic instruction by district teachers with enrichment and academic activities by community-based partners in a single program model for 4,000 youth.

In addition, the Victoria Foundation is spearheading efforts to build an out-of-school time network that would coordinate funding and technical assistance to programs both during the summer and the school year. With the collaboration of diverse community partners, and a shared passion to offer a bright future for all youth, Newark has taken critical first steps to provide quality summer learning opportunities to all students who need them.

Newark should not stand alone. Youth in every community deserve to have memorable summer learning experiences. And we can make an extraordinary difference by bringing diverse stakeholders together, increasing coordination and collaboration and striving toward a shared vision for a stronger citywide summer learning system.


To learn more about Newark’s Summer Learning Initiative, please see the report: Investments and Opportunities in Summer Learning: A Community Assessment of Newark, New Jersey.

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