Rafael Rothkegel can’t wait for the school year to be over so he can enjoy his summer vacation playing basketball, soccer, and computer games. The 11 year old, who is about to finish 5th grade at Hoboken Charter School in New Jersey, thinks reading is boring, so his parents face the challenge of promoting academic activities between school years, without risking turning him off books for life.
“Usually schools send reading, science, and math homework about a month before school starts to get kids up to speed,” says his father, Iván Rothkegel. But that might not be enough. According to studies and some evidence, on average, students lose about 2.6 months worth of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills during their summer break. The setbacks have also been seen in reading and spelling abilities. Some have called the summer learning loss “devastating.”
The digital age, with all its distractions – video games, streaming TV, and mobile applications – seems to exacerbate the problem, keeping kids glued to screens and away from any academic or physical activity.
But it is also true that the ubiquity of tablets, smartphones, and computers offers a great opportunity to use multimedia learning programs. Genius Plaza is one of them. The digital educational platform, already used in schools in North, Central, and South America, is launching Learning Summer Victory Challenge, a program to help students from PreK through 12th grade retain and refresh what they learned during the school year. It does so through fun videos, eBooks, and math and language arts games.
Any parent can access Genius Plaza at www.geniusplaza.com and create accounts for their kids for free. Each week, Genius Plaza will announce winners from those students participating in the Summer Victory Challenge on the Genius Plaza platform. Eligible students will be entered to win VR sets and tablets.
“Traditionally, what happens is the students finish the school year and then go on vacation, and really don’t spend the time reading or practicing the math skills (they acquired), so our program is offering a platform where they are going to be able to reinforce the concepts they learned throughout the year,” says Michelle Emirzian, Genius Plaza’s Chief Academic Officer.
Parent coordinators at schools where Genius Plaza is available are being informed about the availability of the platform for home use during the summer so they can share the news with other parents. What is unique about the program is its accessibility: a student can be in the United States or the Dominican Republic, or in any other country visiting family, and be able to access the platform as long as he or she has an account set up.
Genius Plaza is paying special attention to underachieving and low-income students, who suffer the most learning loss during summer. It is estimated that as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap is the result of summer learning loss. As such, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.
“Many times they struggle with relocation and the language barrier (in the case of newly arrived immigrant students),” adds Ms. Emirzian. “They already have difficulty with being at grade level, so if you take some weeks off, that could have a greater negative effect.”
The most disturbing aspect, according to the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank based in Santa Monica, CA, is that summer learning loss is cumulative. In its 2011 report “How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning,” RAND concluded that over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.
The problem has become so acute, some have suggested more radical solutions, like changing the school year calendar or getting rid off summer vacations altogether. The truth is the almost three month vacation period between school years is unique to the American school system. Most Latin American countries, for example, have two months of recess, at most, between school years.
The RAND report also found that summer learning programs like Genius Plaza’s work. “Combined evidence from studies suggests that all these types of summer learning programs (either voluntary or mandatory) can mitigate summer learning losses and even lead to achievement gains,” says RAND in its report.
Parents play a key role in helping reduce the gap, too. Communication, a reward system, or just a few minutes a day dedicated to fun academic activities with the kids will make a big difference.
According to Barbara Dianis, author of Don’t Count Me Out! A Guide to Better Grades & Test Scores PreK-12, half an hour to an hour set aside daily can help students close learning gaps and perform at higher levels during the upcoming school year.
“Even if the kid is self-motivated, the parents should be involved,” adds Ms. Emirzian, who points out it is very important to present the activity to kids as something fun done together and not something to nag them about.
Any student suffers for not exercising the brain muscle, as anyone suffers when they stop exercising, says Ms. Emirzian. “You need to enjoy the summer, but also need to have some refresher of a few minutes every day.”