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It's an outdated legacy of the farm economy.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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Stealth Learning

I saw a lot of eager, engaged kids in Indianapolis and met a number of vibrant teachers and volunteers. But every camp and academy I visited had dozens of children stranded on a waiting list. And for each of those students, there were no doubt hundreds of kids whose parents had not even bothered to find a summer program and fill out an application.

A recent study sponsored by the Wallace Foundation estimated that only 25% of students currently participate in organized summer learning programs, although a majority of parents said they would enroll their children if more programs were available. Fortunately, some public schools have begun to tackle the problem of summer learning loss. In Cincinnati, Ohio, a program called Fifth Quarter offers an additional month of classes, specially tailored for summer, at 16 schools serving low-income students. Houston schools offer four weeks of math and science education for at-risk students and report that participants average a boost of more than 10% in their test scores.

In the Appalachian town of Corbin, Ky.--home of Harland Sanders and his famous fried chicken--there was no one but the school district to fend off summer slide. Karen West, director of Corbin's Redhound Enrichment program, says, "Eighty-eight percent of our children live in latchkey families, and we have no YMCA, no Boys & Girls Clubs. Really, there was almost nothing for them to do." Hired in 2006 by the Corbin independent school district, West began building what is now a 10-week operation, running 10 hours per day, from the day after school lets out until the day before classes resume. Lessons in reading, math, science and social studies fill much of the day, but nothing about Redhound Enrichment feels like dreaded summer school.

Each summer, West builds on a theme. This year it's "Lights, camera, action!" Every week revolves around a subtheme, and for the week when Toy Story 3 was to open, West picked "To infinity--and beyond!" On Monday, students took a field trip to watch the movie. Throughout the week, teachers integrated space exploration into their classrooms. On Friday, the kids put on a science fair, and a mobile planetarium paid a visit.

The entire community of Corbin pitches in. Restaurants host meals at which students can practice etiquette. The swimming pool invites the kids each Wednesday. Baptist Regional Medical Center organizes the Longest Day of Play to promote health and fitness. The department of fish and wildlife leads a session on conservation--then takes all the students fishing. As the kids weigh and measure their catch, they think they're just trying to win first prize, but West notes that they are also doing a day's worth of math. Summer educators like to call this sort of thing "stealth learning."

"We have over 30 partners," West says, and their in-kind contributions nearly match her annual budget of $60,000. "When everyone gives a little, we can do miracles." The proof: students in the Corbin program not only don't fall behind through the summer; they move ahead. More than half of the participants improve by a full letter grade or more in both reading and math.

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