How Pittsburgh Made Progress Bridging the Opportunity Gap with Summer Programs

What began as a project of five cities in 2011 to research whether summer learning programs that offer a mix of academic instruction and enrichment opportunities can boost success in school quickly turned into a commitment to understand and improve the role that summer learning plays in closing the opportunity gap for students. One of the five cities selected to participate in the Wallace Foundation’s National Summer Learning Project was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In 2011, the City of Pittsburgh had over 23 percent of its residents living at or below the poverty level, many of whom were low-income students attending Pittsburgh Public Schools. For some students, just attending school can be overwhelming, but layering on issues of hunger, homelessness, violence and inequitable learning opportunities presents new challenges that low-income students are forced to overcome.

What happens when learning takes a vacation during summer break?

Over summer vacation, it’s normal for students to forget some of what they learned during the school year, but summer slide (the loss of some of the math and reading achievement gains students make during the previous school year) takes its biggest toll on low-income students, contributing substantially to the achievement and opportunity gap that exists between them and their higher-income peers.

A recent webinar hosted by the National League of Cities featuring Catherine Augustine from the RAND Corporation, Christine Cray from Pittsburgh Public Schools, and Kathryn Vargas from the City of Pittsburgh highlights how these challenges can seem insurmountable.

“There are a number of ways that low-income students are at a disadvantage over the summer. They experience slower rates of learning, fewer enrichment opportunities, less access to healthy food and meal options, and spend more time sedentary,” Augustine said. She shared RAND’s findings from its Learning from the Summer report.

With that in mind and through the support of the Wallace Foundation’s National Summer Learning Project, Pittsburgh Public Schools and community partners like the City of Pittsburgh set out to expand summer opportunities for low-performing, low-income students.

Leveraging School District and City Resources to Expand Programming Benefits

For 27 days in the summer, Pittsburgh Public Schools students who participate in the school district’s Summer Dreamers Academy enjoy a full day of academic learning and enrichment with access to free breakfast and lunch as well as transportation. What once started as a way to invest in a robust and fun summer learning program for elementary school students now serves as both an employment and partnership opportunity across the school district and city.

Today, the Summer Dreamers Academy serves over 2,000 K- 8 students and employs over 60 teens and young adults between the ages of 14 and 21 from the City of Pittsburgh’s Learn&Earn summer youth employment program. Not only does the partnership support staff capacity for Summer Dreamers, but it also serves as a workforce training program. The City pays for bus passes for the youth workers, while the school district hired staff to teach workforce skills including resume building, coming to work on time, getting a paycheck, etc.

With a 24 percent child poverty rate, “city investments like the Learn&Earn summer youth employment program puts money in the hands of young people and provides a job opportunity for them are critical for the city to be considering as we think about best serving our residents,” Vargas said.

Elected Officials Have a Stake to Play

Summers without quality learning opportunities put our nation’s youth at risk for falling behind – year after year – in core subjects like math and reading. High-quality learning opportunities during the summer can make a difference in stemming learning loss and ultimately, closing the achievement and opportunity gap.

According to the results from the National Summer Learning Project, students that participated in high-quality summer learning programs outperformed peers in mathematics, English language arts and social-emotional learning.

“In all of the cities, mayors served as strong champions for the work,” Augustine said.

Moreover, she outlined ways that mayors serve as champions for summer learning, including:

  • Convening key stakeholders to set a vision for summer learning;
  • Holding press conferences in support of summer learning programs;
  • Leveraging city staff and departments such as Parks & Recreation, Libraries, and Police to promote access to high-quality programs;
  • Developing a program locator website for city residents to easily find summer learning opportunities; and
  • Forming summer learning task forces to identify and target resources to neighborhoods most in need.

“We are fortunate to have a robust summer Learn&Earn program. Our Mayor, Bill Peduto, is particularly invested in this, in fact, the program has grown under his tenure,” Vargas said.

All municipal leaders and city teams are invited to learn more about the role the cities can play to support summer learning programs by listening to our #Cities4Summer: The Role of Cities to Scale Summer Learning Efforts webinar recording here and to check out the Wallace Foundation’s Knowledge Center for additional resources to support summer learning.

Gislene Tasayco smallAbout the Author: Gislene Tasayco is the senior associate for NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families Education and Expanded Learning team.