Changing the Story of Summer

by Michael Funk

Which sounds more appealing to you for a summer activity: sitting in a stuffy school classroom doing remedial work, or hopping on a bus with your friends to go chase minnows in a nearby river? The traditional paradigm for summer learning has been the former, and it’s felt like a punishment. At the California Department of Education, we’re working to change that paradigm and write a new narrative about a summer that is as engaging as it is educational.

The need for summer learning opportunities is clear. Research is proving, time and again, that a vibrant summer learning experience — one that’s focused on enrichment, not traditional summer school — helps prevent summer learning loss and builds stronger connections between kids, communities and schools. In my role as director of the CDE’s After School Division, I’ve paid close attention to this research and worked to open more conversation and action in support of expanded learning — including quality summer learning — at the state level.

Changing the narrative and encouraging Californians to embrace a new concept of summer learning requires much more than a top-down message from state government.

In 2011, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson created the After School Division, and in our initial strategic planning we decided to encourage quality rather than just compliance in afterschool programs. That strategy included summer programs as well. We’re building a new paradigm for learning throughout the school year. Not traditional summer school. Not remediation. Not babysitting. We envision opportunities that are enriching, exciting and enlightening for students of all ages. For many people, that’s an entirely new way of thinking.

Changing the narrative and encouraging Californians to embrace a new concept of summer learning requires much more than a top-down message from state government. That’s why we are pleased to see partners such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation embracing and helping to promote the concept of summer learning by delivering the message to a wide range of audiences — from state policy people like me to school districts and community partners at the local level.

Having a philanthropic partner in this work allows us to amplify our message and reach further than we ever could on our own. The Summer Matters campaign that the Packard Foundation funded shares the importance of providing quality experiences and the impact that is made when those experiences are in place. It is a carefully structured campaign with multiyear funding that captures persuasive data and pushes for the expansion of quality programs.

The Packard Foundation has done much more than talk the talk. They’ve also supported ten demonstration programs around the state to show Californians exactly what a high-quality summer enrichment experience, run with district and community-based partners, can look like. And they helped carry that message of quality to hundreds of summer program technical assistance providers through the ASAPconnect technical assistance system. That has been incredibly powerful, and I would like to see the Packard Foundation’s approach of funding multiyear, multidimensional efforts — program, technical assistance and communications — become a model for other types of initiatives.

But even more importantly, having an independent, philanthropic partner like the Packard Foundation involved in this work elevates the issues of summer learning beyond the realm of politics or government. It provides an additional trusted, objective voice that speaks to the importance of summer in a way that appeals to broad audiences. And the level of investment from the Foundation in this work — roughly $30 million over seven years — signals the importance of the issue.

In addition, the Foundation’s strong support of summer learning has bolstered our department’s agenda of expanded learning year-round. They’ve provided support for strategic planning and connections to research and expertise that have helped us change the narrative around summer learning.

Have we seen the dial move in terms of interest? Absolutely. We’re now hearing a growing number of superintendents and local school boards talking about the importance of a quality summer experience, and those are some of the most powerful voices of all. And our state’s new Local Control Funding Formula allows those superintendents more control, authority and autonomy for investing in summer learning as part of their Local Control and Accountability Plans. For our part at the state level, we’re ensuring that summer will remain a part of our technical assistance system to support school districts that want to join in the success.

There is much more summer narrative yet to be written, and many ways in which the story can unfold in different communities across California. But rest assured that the old-style concept of summer learning — the one of being trapped in a boring classroom — is definitely not the story we’ll create from this point on. Instead, the story of summer learning in California will be one in which children are eager to take part, year after year.

Matt Beardsley Photo, intense people photography, 925-381-4196Michael Funk is the Director, Expanded Learning Division, at the California Department of Education.