As learning innovation grows, a fresh approach to ‘summer melt’ emerges in Pittsburgh

By Melissa Rayworth

A school year like no other has finally ended. Summer is here, offering a much-needed break for students, teachers and parents. And yet as welcome as this school break may be, it’s also the time of year when parents worry about learning loss, also known as “summer melt.”

Research suggests that as much as 25% of the previous year’s material may slowly dissolve under the summer sun, says Dr. Bart Rocco, a former superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District and a current Grable Foundation Fellow. After the disrupted spring semester, parents may be especially concerned about summer learning loss this year.

But consider: Innovative approaches to education have begun prioritizing skill development over memorization of content. If the future will require today’s learners to be problem-solvers capable of collaborating and thinking flexibly, summer can be a perfect time to work on those skills.

Build an ecosystem together

We know that students thrive when they have a community of caring adults and peers learning with them. The COVID-19 school disruption has been especially hard on parents who aren’t able to stay home with their kids and don’t have a network of support. This summer could be a time to forge connections that might make that easier — and help kids build skills along the way.

Michelle Thomas, director of programs at the Mentoring Partnership in Pittsburgh, has a neighbor who spends time with her children and teaches them skills like gardening and painting. Parents can try reaching out to trusted friends, relatives and neighbors to see who might spend a bit of time sharing their knowledge safely in person or via video call. It can be a huge help to have “someone for an hour a day to pop in and FaceTime with my kiddos and do an activity with them,” Thomas says. This kind of mentoring reminds a child that they have a supportive community and can introduce them to new skills.

Another option: Have family members read a book together or plan a summer reading challenge to finish several books, says Dr. Bille P. Rondinelli, a Grable Foundation Fellow and former superintendent of the South Fayette School District  A group of siblings or cousins could all read a book, discussing the chapters in a group text or video chat. The group can even add an activity, like cooking a meal that characters in a story might eat or researching a real-world location that the book mentions.

As they collaborate with others, the children will be developing their planning and communication skills.

You can also grow your child’s learning ecosystem via local organizations. Many out-of-school time providers quickly pivoted to virtual programming last spring, says Stephanie Lewis, manager of partnerships and quality improvement at APOST. So they’re likely to be operating this summer with some mix of virtual and in-person services. “Fortunately, we have enough programs within our region that are able to still open their doors and serve a number of students, such as the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCASarah Heinz House and even some of our smaller, neighborhood-based organizations,” Lewis says. “They may not be serving hundreds of students, but they’re still able to serve about 30 to 50 percent of the students that they would have served in a safe, socially distant way.”

In Pittsburgh, Partner4Work’s Learn and Earn summer program is also available for teens this year, though much of it is virtual. Mentoring Partnership executive director Colleen Fedor says many mentoring programs are also operating this summer, despite the challenge of COVID. “Programs are innovating quickly,” Fedor says.

Building stronger remote learning skills

It’s likely that school will include at least some online component this fall and beyond. So consider having kids explore a free resource like Khan Academy this summer. They can fill in missed learning from spring semester and also continue getting comfortable with online learning.

In Pittsburgh, the nonprofit Gwen’s Girls is offering free personal tutoring via Zoom to K-12 students this summer. Many communities around the country may have organizations offering similar services.

Encourage personal projects 

Project-based learning is happening in a growing number of school districts nationwide. During summer break, students can take that work a step further by designing their own projects, says Rondinelli.

“Now is the time to try and fail forward,” she says, so encourage your learners to explore new interests.

With age-appropriate supervision, a student might search online for instructions to build a basic rocket or a mini-volcano that erupts from a mix of baking soda and vinegar. Projects like these build planning skills, bring in a bit of math and science, and fuel curiosity.

Teens could take a coding class or begin learning a new language for free online. And this could be the summer that they really embrace learning about history and social justice in America.

Whatever kind of project they choose, the key is helping them set goals and reminding them that adults really care about their learning, says Kristan Allen, director of marketing and development at the Mentoring Partnership.

“Talking through short-term and long-term goals is a way to not only scenario-plan, but also keep that connection going,” Allen says.

That personal connection might just be the most valuable component this summer.

“Just maintaining those relationships contributes to students learning, their success and also their social-emotional well-being,” says Lewis. “It’s really easy to keep trucking along with our expectations and wanting to meet our goals. But we have to be mindful that we are human first.”

This article is part of a series for ‘Tomorrow’ powered by Remake Learning. From May to October, “Tomorrow” will explore – through virtual events, grantmaking, and storytelling – what we can do today to make tomorrow a more promising place for all learners. Follow along or share your hopes for today’s young people using the hashtag #RemakeTomorrow and tagging @RemakeLearning. Learn more about Remake Learning here. And read more “Tomorrow” articles published on Kidsburgh.