Mid-Columbia schools try to beat student forgetfulness

By Jacques Von Lunen, Tri-City HeraldAugust 28, 2011 

This week is all about "new" for Mid-Columbia students -- new teachers, new outfits, new classmates and lots of new things to learn.

But once they have found their desks and lockers, many students will have to buckle down on last year's material for at least a few weeks.

A lot of students come out of the long summer break initially remembering little of what they learned last year.

Experts blame the so-called "summer slide" for much of the difference in test scores between kids from low-income families and their peers from wealthier households.

Several measures already in place or being discussed in the Tri-Cities could make a difference.

Two-thirds of the achievement gap between kids from lower-income and higher-income families can be traced back to what happens during the summers of their elementary school years, wrote Karl Alexander, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, in a scientific journal.

He and his colleagues tracked almost 800 children in Baltimore from first grade into adulthood.

Students from lower-income families progressed at the same rate as the other kids during the year, the researchers found. They just fell behind a little more each summer.

Tri-City teachers also have seen this slide in their kids.

"I've had many cases where they've lost a lot," said Karen Lipp, who has taught elementary school in Richland for the past 17 years. "I'll think, 'Wait a minute -- you could read this before.' "

Students can lose four to six weeks' worth of learning during the summer, said Niki Arnold-Smith, principal of Eastgate Elementary in Kennewick.

Seventh-grade math students typically need three to four weeks of review before they can get started on the current year's material, said Debbie Ellefson, a math and science teacher at Enterprise Middle School in West Richland.

The drop noticeably varies by students' families' income levels, teachers said.

Kids living in poverty don't have the same opportunities as kids from slightly wealthier families, Arnold-Smith said. Almost all of the kids at Eastgate are eligible for free lunch -- a measure of poverty.

Kids not living in poverty might travel in summer, go to a zoo or museum, or spend time at camp, Arnold-Smith said. All of these activities offer opportunity for keeping school skills sharp.

And kids from better-off families more often read over the summer, while many kids living in poverty can't -- they may not have any books at home, said Michele Larrabee, a reading teacher at Eastgate.

Lipp has seen both extremes in one class when she taught at Tapteal Elementary in West Richland, she said. Its boundaries encompass poor and fairly wealthy families, but little in between, she said.

She had kindergartners who didn't know how to hold a pencil, but also kids who had been to preschool and already could read and write. "That gap broadened over the summer," she said.

When she was at Tapteal, Lipp taught first- through third-graders mixed together in one class. She used a "buddy system," she said, where the older kids tutored the little ones. Both learned -- one by teaching, one by being taught.

This system also worked well for kids coming back from summer break with little retention of what they had learned.

Another innovation in teaching is Response to Intervention, a method to quickly identify low-achieving students and boost their skills by one-on-one or small-group teaching.

Students who had trouble understanding a certain topic in the first place often are the most likely to lose that knowledge during the summer, said Evelyn Abernethy, a reading teacher at Longfellow Elementary in Pasco. Helping those students refresh that particular skill individually can quickly bring them back up to speed with the rest of the class, she said.

All three Tri-City school districts use some form of this technique. Many elementary teachers now break up their classes in small groups according to skill level, which means the kids that slipped over the summer can receive the attention they need.

Teachers pick up the pace quicker in the beginning of the school year than they used to, Abernethy said. The whole first day was once reserved for making kids comfortable in new surroundings and meeting their classmates, but now teachers give them 10 or 15 minutes before they delve into the material.

That's in part because there is more test data to show how much kids forget and how quickly they learn, Abernethy said.

Kids are tested at the end of the year, which gives teachers a good idea of how prepared they should be when they come back. When a kid shows a big drop from that expected level in the beginning of the year, Abernethy and other intervention specialists give the student some individualized instruction right away, sometimes on the first day, she said.

The surest way to keep students' skills up during the summer is to keep them in school, of course.

Kennewick this summer expanded its summer school program. The results were very promising, said Larrabee, the Eastgate reading teacher. She also was the summer school principal.

Many of the kids not only retained everything they had learned last year, but improved. The easiest way to increase a school's test scores would be to decrease the time kids are away from school.

Another way to address the summer slide, it would seem, is to not have a long summer break in the first place. Proponents of year-round school nationwide have clamored for this solution for years.

Pasco is contemplating year-round school -- not to erase the summer slide, but to make more room in overcrowded schools by splitting students into multiple tracks and letting them take turns going to school throughout the year.

In one model, students would go to school for 60 days, stay home for 20, go for 60, and so on, without a summer break.

National studies are inconclusive about whether year-round calendars improve test scores. Most experts say the school year needs to be extended, not just broken up differently, to significantly improve scores.

And two people who have worked in year-round schools said the shorter breaks only helped some students prevent the slide. But the students who are helped are among those who need a lot of support.

Lipp, the Richland teacher, came to the Tri-Cities from Fresno, Calif., where schools used multi-track, year-round schedules.

She said the shorter breaks helped students who weren't native English speakers. Being away from school, among their non-English speaking families for shorter periods of time, helped them to better retain their English skills, she said.

Paul Dugan, who consults Pasco on its possible switch to a different calendar, agreed with that assessment.

Dugan two years ago retired as superintendent of the Washoe County School District, which includes Reno, Nev.

That district switched to multi-track, year-round school in the same scenario Pasco faces now -- overcrowded schools and a failed bond election.

The Washoe district saw no rise in test scores, Dugan said. But his teachers told him that kids learning English fared better under the new system. He said it's possible that the language-learners were distributed too thinly across the district to really make a dent in overall test scores.

Only about 17 percent of all students in Dugan's former district have limited proficiency in English, according to Nevada state records. Pasco's percentage is twice as high.

And 44 percent of the Washoe County kids qualify for free lunch, compared to more than 70 percent in Pasco.

But teachers there did say that the year-round model helped them, even if that didn't show up in test scores, Dugan said.

"They were spending less time getting students back in the mode of 'Hey, we're back in school,' " he said.

w Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com

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