The Case Against Summer Vacation

It's an outdated legacy of the farm economy. Adults still romanticize it. But those months out of school do the most damage to the kids who can least afford it

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Cass Bird for TIME

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Fairchild and his organization are part of a growing movement to stop the summer slide by coordinating, expanding and improving summer enrichment programs--especially for low-income children. Supporters range across the political spectrum from Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana to Democrats in the Department of Education under President Obama, who has created a National Summer Learning Day to call attention to the issue. Some of the nation's largest private donors--including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies--are putting their muscle into the cause.

The romance of summer is so ingrained that this flock of reformers might remind some readers of another character from Tom Sawyer's world, the wealthy Widow Douglas, who "introduced [Huckleberry Finn] into society--no, dragged him into it, hurled him into it--and his sufferings were almost more than he could bear. The widow's servants kept him clean and neat, combed and brushed ... The bars and shackles of civilization shut him in and bound him hand and foot." As our modern-day reformers strive to civilize summer as an educational resource, the trick is to seize the opportunity without destroying what's best about the season: the possibility of fun and freedom and play.

Barriers of Cost and Culture

Experts believe that a majority of the 30 million American kids poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches do not attend any kind of summer enrichment program. The obvious way to reach that large a group is through the public schools. And indeed, education reformers have been talking about lengthening the school year--to make America's students more competitive--for at least a generation, going back to the publication in 1983 of the blockbuster report on our troubled schools A Nation at Risk. Long summer holidays are the legacy of our vanished agrarian past, when kids were needed in the fields during the growing season. Leaders in a number of states have tried to add days or even weeks to the academic calendar, but they quickly run into barriers of cost and culture. In this bad economy, state and local governments are cutting, not growing, their school budgets. And entire industries depend on the rhythms of summer--think travel, camping, sports and theme parks. They use their influence to keep summers as long as possible. In fact, the statute that prevents Virginia schools from reconvening early in August is known as the Kings Dominion Law, in honor of an amusement park north of Richmond.

For these reasons, many summer-learning initiatives fall to an informal alliance of education entrepreneurs. In the bare basement of an old church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, a group of kids whose world is normally measured in city blocks were experiencing Italy one late-June morning. Some of the children were quietly writing newspaper articles about Italian life. Others were attempting the Italian tradition of family conversation at the dinner table. Still others were making cannoli, stuffing pastry tubes with a creamy, sweet cheese mixture. There's a summer discovery for you: Who ever heard of sweet cheese?

For some 80 elementary-school children in this low-income neighborhood, the summer of 2010 is as close to world travel as they've ever been. The all-day program at the East 10th United Methodist Church is built this year around a World Cup theme. Each week the focus turns to another country, and while the kids are exploring foods and landmarks and cultural traditions, they are, unwittingly, doing math as they measure ingredients and learning science as they raise vegetable gardens with plants native to each land. Fridays are for field trips; to study Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the kids rode buses to the aquarium in Chicago.

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