Louis Freedberg/California WatchStudents play basketball at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles.
As millions of California schoolchildren embark on a months-long summer vacation, low-income students are likely to lose substantial ground academically during the summer, while higher-income students will gain, according to a new report.
Most disturbing, according to a report titled "Making Summer Count," issued last week by the RAND Corp., is that the losses are cumulative and contribute substantially to the achievement gap that California and other states have been unsuccessfully trying to close for decades.
Summer academic losses are likely to be more pronounced in California than most other states.
That's because California is shrinking its school year, falling behind most other states and most industrialized countries in the number of instructional days it offers, as California Watch has shown in several previous reports. Depending on when they trim their school year, in many districts, that translates into a longer summer.
A California Watch survey found that 16 of the 30 largest school districts in the state had shrunk their school year to fewer than 180 days, the minimum required by state law until two years ago. The minimum is now 175 days.
After shortening its school year by a week, the Los Angeles Unified School District, by far the state's largest with 671,000 students, is now offering the minimum number of days required by law. The same applies to other school districts, like Long Beach Unified, Corona-Norco Unified and Elk Grove Unified.
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And many school officials fear they may have to further shorten their school year as they plan for even deeper budget cuts.
On average, by the fall, students have fallen one month behind where they left off in the spring, according to the RAND report. The summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students, whose parents often can't afford to send their children to private summer programs, which typically cost hundreds of dollars per week.
Making matters worse is that many school districts have eliminated most of their summer programs, leaving low-income kids in limbo. As education reporter Katy Murphy pointed out in the Oakland Tribune this week, 59 percent of Oakland public schoolchildren surveyed by the National Summer Learning Association in 2008 did not attend summer school or camp. Forty-three percent took care of themselves most of the time while school was out. Two-thirds of the students surveyed were in fourth or fifth grade, Murphy wrote.
The situation has almost certainly gotten worse since then. A survey [PDF] last year of California high schools by UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access found that 65 percent of principals had reduced or eliminated summer school programs, usually reserved for students struggling to make up for ground lost during the regular school year.
As if that was not enough, the odds of a high school student finding a job are low to nonexistent. The unemployment rate for 16- to-19-year-olds in California last month was an astronomical 34 percent, three times higher than the state's overall unemployment rate, and could go even higher this summer.
Simultaneously, government-supported jobs programs for teens also have been drastically cut or eliminated, especially as federal stimulus funds have dried up. The California situation is so bad that nationally broadcast CBS News reported on it. Last summer, Los Angeles hired 16,000 young people to work in city parks, pools and other city-run facilities. This summer, only 6,000 will get jobs at those places, according to the report.
"We're going to have thousands and thousands of students who are going to be on the streets without an activity to do," said Ozzie Lopez, executive director of the Los Angeles Youth Opportunity Movement.
The net result: Large numbers of low-income California schoolchildren will be sitting at home this summer with little to do except watch television and play on the computer – and falling even further behind academically compared with their more affluent peers.