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After a long school year, children, and often their parents, view summer as a time to have fun, relax and recharge before starting another school year in August.

But Gary Huggins, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association, says that idea is outdated and hinders a child’s academic progress.

“If your kids are not engaged in learning over the summer, they are losing ground,” Huggins said. “While summer is a great break from school, it doesn’t have to be a break from learning.”

The problem is particularly pronounced for children in low-income families, Huggins said. Research shows that low-income students lose an average of two to three months of learning achievement over the summer, while their middle-class peers tend to make slight gains.

Two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers can be attributed to access to educational opportunities over the summer, Huggins said.

“We’re never going to close the achievement gap if we don’t address summer learning loss,” Huggins said.

The students who fall behind in the summer have to spend more time at the beginning of the next school year getting caught up. Huggins said of 500 teachers surveyed by his organization, two-thirds reported having to spend three to four weeks at the beginning of the school year reviewing material students learned the year before.

One local organization working to combat summer learning loss, particularly for low-income families, is the Rock Island-based Child Abuse Council. The organization’s Summer Enrichment Program provides teachers who bring an educational element to summer programs offered by organizations throughout the community.

This summer, the program will provide teachers to programs run by the Church of Peace, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, Two Rivers YMCA and the Spring Forward Learning Center sites operating at Longfellow Elementary School and Frances Willard Elementary School, said Angie Kendall, program director for community education at the Child Abuse Council.

Kendall said one of the benefits of the program is that it brings an educational element to programs that already exist in the community.

The program also works closely with the Rock Island School District in tracking the progress of participating students.

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Of the 208 third- through eighth-grade students who attended the Summer Enrichment Program last year, 159 took both the Spring 2012 and Fall 2012 state assessment. Of those students, 40 percent showed significant growth, 25 percent showed average growth, and 35 percent showed significant loss, Kendall said.

At Church of Peace, whose congregation includes a significant number of immigrant families, the program fits in well with its English as a Second Language program for adults, said director of church operations Nora Steele.

Steele said the church also has fun activities for the children in its summer program, such as trips to the zoo, but tries to incorporate an educational element in those activities as well.

She said the church wanted to be part of the Summer Enrichment Program because it recognizes the importance of making sure children don’t take a break from education during the summer.

“It’s continued learning, and that’s exactly what they need,” she said.

Huggins said while the summer of all play and no work is an outdated idea, so is the old concept of looking at summer school as punishment or simply a continuation of the same rigor and schedule of the school year.

“A little more of the same is not likely to be effective,” he said.

He said working to incorporate educational elements into other summer activities is a better way to engage students.

Another critical element of summer learning is parental involvement, Huggins said. He said parents need to plan ways get their children engaged in summer learning.

“It doesn’t do any good to put four or five books in front of them and hope for the best,” he said.

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