By Connie Matthiessen
It's almost summer, and every kid I know is delirious with joy. My own kids are making plans with friends and looking forward to summer adventures, staying up late, and sleeping in.
"No early carpool, no homework, no studying for tests. And I can sleep as late as I want," one of my boys told me. Oh, the luxury!
But as students eagerly anticipate the roughly two and a half months of summer vacation stretching before them, many of the parents I know are panicking, including me. I honestly wish “summer break” was much, much shorter. A month shorter, at least.
Our school calendar’s long summer break is the legacy of our country's agrarian roots, when many kids spent the summer helping out on the family farm. Today, farmers make up only 1 to 2 percent of the population, and the majority of families have two working parents –- yet long summer vacations still persist. To adults who think nostalgically of summers by the swimming hole or at beloved Camp Grenada, I'd like to invoke a more contemporary image: unsupervised kids spending the day in front of a screen, on a street corner – or worse.
If you have younger kids, of course, summer camp is an option. But camp costs have risen steadily over the years. These days in San Francisco a week of summer camp averages $300-plus a week, which adds up quickly -- especially for families with more than one child. Summers are particularly tricky for parents of teens and tweens: They’re too old for camp but either too young or unable to get a job. (Summer jobs for teens are tougher than ever to find, in part because of the struggling economy). And unless you have the resources to afford enrichment programs or teen-oriented adventure travel (diving lessons in the Caribbean, anyone?), you’re pretty much out of easy fixes.
So we piece together a patchwork of summer solutions, including unpaid time off, help from family, a camp here, a volunteer job there. The process takes months of planning -- and leads to stressful scrambling when plans fall through. Parents with no backup who can't afford camp have no choice but to leave their kids to rattle around on their own.
I know: I sound like a grump, or a buzz kill, as my kids would say. But long summer breaks don't just create problems for families –- they affect school achievement as well. According to the National Summer Learning Association, most students lose approximately two months worth of math skills over the summer. Low-income students are more adversely affected than privileged kids, according to the Association: "Two thirds of the 9th grade achievement gap between lower and higher income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years." Long summer breaks even contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic: According to the Association, children gain weight two or three times faster during summer vacation than during the school year.
Many education experts are pushing for a longer school year. President Obama has spoken favorably of the idea, pointing out that kids in countries with higher achievement scores tend to have more school hours per year than American students.
Obama has acknowledged that cost is an obstacle to extending the school year. Given the tight budget times, that doesn't seem likely to change soon. This year in Maine, lawmakers voted down a bill that would have added five days to the school year, pointing out that it would cost the state $56 million a year.
Clearly, the cost of a longer school year would be huge. But it's important to account for the incalculably high costs we're incurring now: a growing achievement gap, an increasing number of children who spend the summer unsupervised, parents distracted at work because they’re worrying about their kids, and increasing rates of obesity, just to name a few.
So I, for one, support the movement for a longer school year.
Just don't tell my kids.