Growing Students' Brains in the Summer

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By Jon Alfuth

Growing up, I experienced one of public education's intractable problems between June and September -- the summer brain drain. It was like all that Algebra and English never happened. And worse yet, my enthusiasm for learning would wane during that time and needed to be kick-started in the fall.

When I started teaching, the summer brain drain went from being my own personal problem to being my professional problem. A substantial body of research confirms that my experience is a frightening reality: The average student loses approximately one month in math and reading per year over summer.

In low income zip codes like the one I teach in, that loss is doubled. One study by Johns Hopkins suggested that almost two thirds of the achievement gap could be explained by the summer loss of learning.

So what do we do? How do we as educators avoid the summer brain drain that saps so much of the knowledge and more importantly, enthusiasm for learning that we inspire during the school year? And how do we do it in such a way as to avoid teacher burnout?

At my school, The Soulsville Charter School in Memphis, we've come up with a unique requirement that fights that summer brain drain and builds rather than breaks down enthusiasm. We call it the summer growth experience, or SGE.

It works like this. Every student attending our school is required, starting in 9th grade, to participate in an activity that builds their knowledge and skills during the summer. Students pick from a wide variety of activities. When they return in the fall, they complete a presentation and are given a grade based on its quality.

Let me give you a few examples from my debate team and my geometry class. One student spent her summer shuttling between Idaho and Chile in a Spanish language immersion program. Another worked in Baton Rouge at a kids' camp. Still another worked as a student ambassador for the city of Memphis. We also had students attend everything from a forensic science camp at Johns Hopkins to a Transportation and Infrastructure program in Nashville.

Many of our kids participate in local programs as well. I've had students become Memphis Ambassadors, attend camps at Bridge Builders, and even volunteer at the Memphis Zoo all summer! I could go on and on about the experiences our kids have had through their SGEs.

I can already hear the question -- "wait, what about kids who can't afford to travel?" Our solution is a one-week program at the end of the year at the school building. Students are split into groups that work on different projects around the campus, like beautification, or out in the community, like participating in the Meals on Wheels program. Some of our past partners include community groups like Clean Memphis, a local food bank, and many others. We also provide some financial support for students who need it.

We make sure that we support our students every step along the way in finding the right SGE for them. To start with, we have an office dedicated in part to helping kids find the right experience for them. And we have a twice-a-week advisory session in the spring that helps us check in with students and support them in applying for specific SGEs. We created SGE TV and leverage students to make commercials about their summer programs. It's a great way to foster student leadership and invest younger students in the "why" behind the SGEs.

But what is the impact, you ask? In my opinion, it is inestimable. I've only taught at Soulsville for two years, but I've already had students attend boarding schools in Massachusetts, work with local music and drama programs, go to forensic science camps at Johns Hopkins in Maryland, spend a week hiking out west in national parks, and attend space camp, just to name a few!

I'm also a fan of this program because I see the excitement in kids' eyes when they come back from these SGEs in the fall. Far from draining them, it keeps their brains fresh and active and rejuvenates their inspiration. And it gives students that extra motivation to start the new year off on the right foot.

There's an added bonus to the SGE beyond fighting the summer brain drain. After four years of the SGEs, our students have so much more to talk about on their college and scholarship applications. The SGE not only fights the summer brain drain, but makes our kids that much more attractive to higher education institutions in the years to come. And as a bonus, it helps them develop the skills necessary to complete a college application or a FAFSA form!

Looking back on my own high school experience, I wish I had been pushed to participate in something like our SGE program. I wasted too many of my summers sitting around because I just didn't know where to go or what to do. But I'm so excited for my students to have this opportunity, and I look forward to hearing all their stories when they come back this fall!

Jon Alfuth is a high school geometry teacher at the Soulsville Charter School in Memphis. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.