Pitcock says there's a common-sense explanation for the disparity. "Higher-income kids are going to museums, they're going to the library, they're taking trips, they're in print-rich environments, and they have age-appropriate books in the home, but they don't necessarily practice math over the summer," she says. Low-income children are less likely to get any kind of enrichment.
Pittsburgh Public Schools already offered a summer-learning program when it rolled out the Summer Dreamers Academy in 2010. But the existing program only served elementary-school students and wasn't well attended or particularly innovative, says Christine Cray, project manager for Summer Dreamers.
The new program—which is voluntary, and free to students—combines classroom instruction with activities provided by community groups and infuses fun throughout the day. The morning might begin with a dance-off, and every school site has a theme; one of Cray's favorites was "Hollywood."
Initially, Summer Dreamers was funded by federal stimulus dollars and was open to only to students in the middle grades. Since 2012, it has been funded by a mix of district and foundation funds, and it has expanded to serve students from kindergarten through seventh grade. Currently, the 27-day program serves some 1,800 students at a cost of roughly $1,200 per student. Enrollment preference goes to students with low test scores and students from low-income families. Approximately three-quarters of the campers each year are African-American (the district's overall student population is just over half African-American).
The same year the Summer Dreamers Academy opened, a Boston nonprofit called Boston After School and Beyond launched a collection of summer programs hosted by community organizations across the city, from college campuses to local YMCAs.
Like the Pittsburgh program, the Boston Summer Learning Project blends academics and fun activities, is voluntary, and is free to students. But it puts more emphasis on using the city as a classroom. "What we've been focused on is using opportunities outside of schools to build these so-called noncognitive skills"—like perseverance and team work, says Chris Smith, president and executive director of Boston After School and Beyond. Right now, the Summer Learning Project relies on a mix of philanthropic funding and financial support from Boston Public Schools, serves about 1,500 students directly (more students are served through a wider network of community organizations), and costs about $1,500 per student.
Programs like these can open up a space for education innovation, encourage teachers to create more engaging lessons, and get community groups more involved in helping children learn.
But they're not easy to establish or to maintain. For one thing, high-quality summer experiences cost money. And most cities don't have a dedicated summer-learning infrastructure—like an office run by the school district. "The problem is, it's not somebody's job," Pitcock says.