Image: Nomad

This month, parents across Portland stare into an abyss. Like an ancient Mayan time cycle, except with real consequences, school ends, in most cases not to reconvene until after Labor Day. 

In many Portland homes with working parents, this moment has caused fretting since Christmas and near-panic since April. Are there still spots in that “stealth archery” and wilderness survival camp? Is the one-week fiber arts class worth $325? Is it too late to get an OMSI membership? 

“It’s daunting,” says Donna Wax, an Irvington parent of two kids now camp-counselor age. “For years I kept a file on camps and circulated it around the neighborhood. I grew up on the East Coast, where everyone goes away to actual summer camp. Done. In Portland, everything’s week-to-week. It gets complicated.”

But beneath this comedy of manners lurks a more serious problem, especially for families who can’t afford $325 for a week of fiber arts: summer is a time when all learning erodes. The season is American education’s self-inflicted wound.

“If you look at the achievement gap between income groups, it widens in the off hours,” says Dan Ryan, chief executive of All Hands Raised, a nonprofit that raises money for schools across the metro area. “By ninth grade, you can attribute two-thirds of that disparity to summer.”

Which prompts the question: should summer be stopped?

Like everything in American education, “summer learning loss” has been studied relentlessly. Johns Hopkins University research distills the basic idea: schools teach rich and poor kids about equally well. Then summer vacation comes along. Because low-income kids generally get fewer books and “enriching” experiences, they lose ground. Dick Allington, a University of Tennessee reading expert, argues that literary skills suffer most. 

“It’s like the first fall football practice,” Allington says. “Coaches can tell who ran on the beach, and who just sat in the sun.”

Portland educators brace themselves every September. “The difference between middle-class and poor kids is huge,” says Jill Semlick, a teacher at Madison High School on Portland’s east side. “Middle-class kids know national parks don’t have swing sets—they’ve been there. With poor kids, you spend a lot more time ‘front-loading’ basic information. Send them home for nearly three months, and the gaps grow exponentially.” 

So why not kill this relic, apparently devised by 1840s reformers who believed city kids attended too much school? “Selfishly, I love summer,” Semlick says. “But the system isn’t working. Maybe they can change it after I retire.”

Indeed, it may take a while. Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others advocate “balanced” calendars, which might feature August vacations and longer spring and winter breaks. Rudy Rudolph, an ex-principal who oversees Portland Public Schools’ calendar committee, says the state’s largest district is considering experiments. But she adds that the question is not straightforward; PPS discontinued two year-round programs due to logistical complications.

“It takes planning, and maybe money,” she says. Rudolph says balanced calendars work best if schools offer electives during those seasonal breaks. Year-round schools in suburban DC, for example, teach Harry Potter–based chemistry classes and the like. Problem, in Rudolph’s words: “How do you fund those?” (Those schools charge small tuitions for “intercession” classes.)

“Summer can be a time when kids discover that reading and learning are fun.”
—Merris Sumrall, Library Foundation

If no radical schedule switch is imminent, Portlanders could build on a few efforts that already stanch the summer learning leak. All Hands Raised, PPS, Portland Parks, and Multnomah County’s SUN program all work on initiatives tailored to kids who need activities and academic aid—one common challenge is making sure parents know help exists. Private camps and extracurricular education have spawned an innovative mini-industry here. (Trackers Earth, which offers that archery camp, has grown from 40 Portland kids in 2004 to about 8,000 in three cities, with about 55 full-time summer employees.) Connecting kids with this “sector” need not be expensive: a $700 grant and some fee waivers helped Semlick take 20 kids to OMSI many times last summer for hands-on science. She wanted to do it again this year, but funds proved elusive.

As part of his sweeping education overhaul, Gov. John Kitzhaber seeks $35 million to boost learning time, either in regular classrooms or expanded summer and off-hours programs. Districts and community groups would tap the funds by proposing projects tailored to specific issues, like third-grade reading levels.

Some of that money could go to the simplest solution: books. For one study, Allington handed kids stacks of free books at summer’s start. Those students did much better the following fall. Multnomah County Library’s summer reading campaign already reaches more than 110,000 kids with self-scored game boards that promise rewards for books read. Allington estimates that $5 million would buy each of those kids 15 books.

“We spend so much trying to fix education,” the Tennessee professor says. “We should spend it on the right things.”