Summer is no time to waste

Boston needs to connect all students with great summer opportunities

BOSTON HAS SOME of the best summer programs in the country, but that is still not enough to ensure that all students have access to them.

At the Boston Summer Learning Summit on March 22, Rahn Dorsey, Boston’s chief of education, called for every student to have access to opportunities that let them pursue their passions over the summer. That is an urgent, important goal. But we can’t accomplish it until Boston starts learning where and why so many of its students miss out and fall behind over the summer.

It’s surprising that one of the country’s premier urban school systems does not know where and why so many students lose out on summer opportunities. At the summit, Boston public schools superintendent Tommy Chang acknowledged that we “don’t have a good way to do this yet,” and said we need to be “crystal clear” about where in our city students lack access to great summer opportunities.

The good news is that a few schools in Boston are already figuring this out, showing we can collect data on what students do over the summer and learn a great deal from it. Give a Summer, a Boston-based education non-profit that I direct, just released a report showing that students face a number of significant barriers to accessing summer programs, not just program expense and transportation challenges, as is commonly thought. The report, drawing on two years of surveys with students and parents at five Boston area public middle schools, sheds much needed light on access to summer opportunities.

One of the most surprising findings is that summer program participation varies widely across neighborhoods and grades. Participation ranged from 32 percent of 7th graders at one school to 78 percent of 8th graders at another. And those differences are just among five schools already working hard to expand summer opportunities for their students.

The same story – of large differences across grades and neighborhoods – repeats itself with students’ enjoyment of their programs and interest in attending them, with interest ranging from 63 percent of students at one school to only 32 percent at another. It is not enough, then, to try to help students who are already interested in programs find them. Rather, opportunity for all students over the summer must also mean the opportunity to become interested in summer programs.

Mayor Walsh has rallied Boston around the goal of creating 100 high-quality summer programs in the Boston Summer Learning Project. Give a Summer’s surveys of more than 500 students and 200 parents, however, show that just having great programs does not ensure students’ access to them. While program expense was the greatest barrier for the families surveyed, close behind were transportation challenges, conflict with family plans, and lack of awareness of great program options.

Surveying students and parents about youth access to summer opportunities reveals a complicated picture, but it also clarifies how we can act to expand opportunities. That can happen by targeting pervasive challenges in different neighborhoods. Summer programs could learn where they could reach out to schools and neighborhoods most missing out over the summer.

Schools can help their students access summer opportunities if they are able to easily share programs that match students’ interests and constraints. In-school volunteers could learn which students want to go to a program but didn’t attend last year, so those students could receive individualized help finding a program that works within their constraints and matches their interests. This information can also help students practice leadership – by, for example, having students who went to certain programs share their experiences with other students who might also be interested in those programs.

At the end of his remarks, Rahn Dorsey noted that Boston is developing high quality summer programs and charged our community to come up with its next ambitious goal to improve what youth do over the summer.

Meet the Author

Our goal moving forward should be to ensure that all students have the opportunity to participate in great summer programs. The only way we can do that is if we ask all students if they can access those opportunities. This year, let’s do that, and take action so that every child’s summer counts.

Ramon Gonzalez is the director of Give a Summer, a Boston based nonprofit dedicated to understanding and increasing youth access to summer opportunities.