Tuesday, August 01, 2000

Skills erode with summer

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Children who don't read or exercise their brains over the summer lose ground academically, teachers say.

Bob Drew, a children's librarian at the Cincinnati Public Library, acts out a part from a book.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        “It's all kids,” says Elmwood Place Elementary Teacher Bonita Lewis, who has been teaching for 21 years. “I see some of the brightest students who haven't done anything over the summer. They lose some of their strengths.”

        That translates into weeks of review at the start of the school year just to get back on track. Ms. Lewis said she needs about four weeks reviewing material from the year before — leaving only about eight months to learn new material in a school year.

        Reading, math games and library story hours can help. And teachers are fighting the summer learning lag with “summer packets” and “to-do” lists for parents to keep kids thinking.

        Otherwise the skills erode, says Carol Rasco, director of the grass-roots national reading campaign for children called the “America Reads Challenge.”

        Even if it's comic books, the America Reads program urges, get children to read. Use grocery coupons to figure out savings or write letters weekly to a friend from school, the campaign says. Ms. Lewis and her colleagues sent students home for the summer with packets of activities, reading lists and worksheets. There is a re ward for those who finish all the work in the big manilla envelope.

        Sue Schwankhaus, a teacher at Sharpsburg Primary in Norwood, arms her first-graders for the summer with 20- to 30-page learning kits and fun suggestions.

        “We're getting more involved as the years go on,” said Ms. Schwankhaus, a 25-year classroom veteran.

        Norwood Schools also offers a three-week “jump start” program just before school starts to help kids — struggling or not — readjust to organized learning.

        Looping classes, or teaching a class for several years in a row, can be one way to cut down in review time, said Kelly Wilham, who has taught at Adams Elementary in Hamilton City Schools for eight years.

        That way a first-grade teacher follows the class the next year, becoming its second-grade teacher, Ms. Wilham says.

        “At most you have an abbreviated review,” she said. "You can basically start (new material) within the first days of the year.”

        The long summer break itself is the problem.

        Kathleen Ware, associate superintendent at Cincinnati Public Schools, says the concept is out of date.

        Summer vacations originated more than two centuries ago when children needed to help parents with crops. But there are few farm families now.

        Instead, Ms. Ware says the long breaks are a problem because children who are not productive tend to lose ground.

        Ms. Ware believes in year-round schooling, offered at schools including Cincinnati's Crest Hills Year-Round School and Silver Grove Independent Schools in Kentucky.

        To keep brains active, parents can take their children to museums and encourage them to read, Ms. Ware suggests.

        It can be fun as well, says Linda Sheffield, regents professor in the School of Education and the Department of Math and Computer Science at Northern Kentucky University.

        She encourages parents to go further by having children calculate the tip at a restaurant or distance to the next town while on a road trip to sharpen math skills.

        Children who have some sort of enrichment over the summer will have an easier time at the beginning of the school year, said Dr. Suzanne Cortez, development and education psychologist assigned to the School of Education at Northern Kentucky University.

        Tristate libraries offer aggressive reading initiatives to kids through the summer.

        Participation in Mason Public Library's summer reading program jumped from about 850 youngsters last year to 1,000 this year, said Bev Kraus, the youth services librarian.

        The program, for children 4 years old through the sixth grade, runs from mid-June to early August and encourages them to read on their own or have others read to them.

        They come into the library each week and record how many books they've read and win a prize. The library also has a teen reading program.

        The Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County offers reading clubs, read-aloud gatherings, crafts and presentations. Participation has jumped 12 percent over past year, said Fran Acree, one of the children's librarians.

        Fairfield resident Robin Frederick encourages her son, Hunter, to keep learning. "I think there's too much lapse,” said Ms. Frederick, a career specialist at the Butler County Joint Vocational School.

        Hunter, 11, who will be a sixth-grade student at Fairfield Intermediate this year, said he reads to exercise his brain over the summer.

        Cincinnati resident Kathy Tompkins says her 6-year-old daughter, Alisha Hutchinson, started a half-hour-a-day reading program with a local volunteer to gear up for first grade at Washington Park Elementary.

        A fan of nursery rhymes, Alisha doesn't mind.

        “I like to read,” she said.


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