Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.
On a July morning at the Academy of American Studies, a public high school in Long Island City, N.Y., Vinay Jassi, a seventh grader, talks companionably to two awed-seeming third graders who have been put in his care.
Middle-class children who make trips to the library, travel and take classes, experience less ‘slide’ than low-income students who don’t.
Vinay is 11. He does well in math and science and dreams of getting admitted admission to Brooklyn Tech — a highly selective test-in high school — then attending a good college and getting a job building robots. The academic trajectory of his two charges, Arshdeep Singh and MD Islam, is less clear. Both have struggled with reading and writing at their nearby public elementary school, P.S. 112.
“School is O.K.,” says Ashdeep uncertainly, but his expression betrays a more troubled feeling. “Sometimes it can be hard,” says Vinay. “But you have to keep trying.”
The valence among Vinay, Arshdeep and MD, and the 80 or so other mentors and their mentees forms the backbone of a new summer program called Practice Makes Perfect. From early July until mid-August, Vinay will serve as friend, role model and teacher’s assistant to the two younger boys in an effort to boost their academic performance.
Practice Makes Perfect is one of a dozen or so programs around the country that are trying to use summer learning to close the achievement gap. New research suggests that nearly all students lose a month or more of skills and knowledge over the summer break. However, not all kids are affected equally. Middle-class children who make trips to the library, travel and take classes, experience some slide in math but little in reading. Low-income students lose math abilities like their middle class counterparts. In addition, though, poor kids can lose between one and two months in reading achievement. One study from Johns Hopkins University attributed two-thirds of the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students to “summer slide.”
Summer school, though, has a bad reputation. In many districts, it is considered a kind of punishment meted out to the poorest performing students. Teachers who lead summer school classes tend not to be excited about them. They are usually offered the assignment based on seniority and asked to focus almost solely on test prep. Attendance is poor — around 75 percent. And for taxpayers, it’s costly: New York City spends $45 million every summer — about $1,338 per child.
Practice Makes Perfect was started three years ago by Karim Abouelnaga, now 21, who grew up in a hardscrabble section of Long Island City, where his program is based, and attended Cornell University on a full scholarship. To him, the achievement gap was never an abstraction. “There were plenty of smart kids in my neighborhood who just didn’t have access to the right teaching, the right resources, didn’t have the right models and the right guidance to move forward in school,” he says.
So he decided to start a program that would keep kids in his neighborhood from falling behind. Practice Makes Perfect works like this: two struggling students in second grade through eighth grade are paired with academically stronger students four years older. Three times a day, a Practice Makes Perfect teacher, usually a college student interested in education, gives a 15-minute lesson in basic skills associated with math, vocabulary, spelling or writing. Then the students and their mentors get to work completing an exercise using the skills the teacher has just taught. Lessons are broken up by meals, playtime, read-alouds, classes in entrepreneurship and trips to a nearby park.
The program’s teachers get a small stipend. Middle school mentors like Viany get $100 for six weeks of work and test prep for the specialized high school test admission test. High school mentors get $150 and prep for the PSAT and SAT. The program, which relies on private philanthropy, rents space at a discount from the Department of Education and has no transportation expenses since it is neighborhood-based. The cost is $250 per child.
At the core of the program is the almost universal desire of younger children to gain acceptance and approval from their older (and presumably cooler) peers. By grouping academically successful children with ones who struggle, Abouelnaga harnesses positive peer pressure to reduce poor behavior and reinforce the notion that learning takes patience, and practice can be fun.
The program helps with attendance, too. If a child is absent, Abouelnaga says, a mentor is likely to phone or even drop by his mentee’s house to ensure that child is planning to attend the next day. Attendance in the program is about 85 percent.
In its first year, Practice Makes Perfect enrolled 32 academically struggling fourth graders — although it operates on open enrollment, most of those students scored a low 2 (out of 4) on the state-wide exam — and 16 high-achieving 10th graders, along with a few college interns to teach the classes. Children were tested on the first and last day of the program. At the end of the summer, the assessments showed Practice Makes Perfect had not only staunched the students’ “summer slide,” but helped them gain ground — over all, the students showed a slight improvement in reading and math. In 2012, the program enrolled 101 students at three sites — in Harlem, the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and Long Island City. That year, struggling students gained about 4 percent in reading and 15 percent in math, as measured by practice state tests.
This summer, armed with an $80,000 budget and operating out of office space donated by Teach for America, Practice Makes Perfect enrolled 250 kids at a single Long Island City high school. (Abouelnaga opted to enroll more students, from a wider range of ages and it was too difficult to both deepen the program and raise money to open three sites again.) Although Abouelnaga targeted students who scored 2 out of 4 on their statewide exam, the program was open to all. Two children who scored a 1 and had been mandated to attend summer school or be left back got a waiver to attend the program. So did two children with special needs. (Each special needs student gets his or her own mentor.) Abouelnaga altered the curriculum to better align it with the Common Core. To foster connectivity between students, Abouelnaga added a mandatory community service program every Saturday.
In the first days of the program this year, the instruction was shaky. College students are given only scant training. One read from a lesson in vocabulary she had sketched out on a piece of paper. In another classroom, an accomplished Fulbright scholar from Morocco, who studies education policy, spent 15 minutes trying to elicit descriptive words about family members by repeatedly asking the bewildered children “Why your mother is nice?”
But there were signs of further success, too. In one session, Arshdeep and MD, under the watchful eye of their mentor, set about trying to expand a simple sentence using some of the adjectives and adverbs they’d just learned. When Vinay pointed out a mistake on MD’s paper — failing to capitalize the first letter in a sentence — he admitted that he himself was prone to such errors not long ago. MD quietly made the correction. The connection between the younger students and the older one was palpable.
Practice Makes Perfect is already drawing attention in the philanthropic community. Abouelnaga was named an Echoing Green Fellow and recently became a semi-finalist for a Peace First Prize, awarded to young people taking action to strengthen their schools and communities.
Next year, Abouelnaga is planning to change the status of his organization from a non-profit, that depends on private donations, to a non-profit that generates revenue from a fee- for- service model. Although school budgets are tight, Abouelnaga said he hoped his program, with its high engagement, low cost and modest gains, would entice to principals all over New York City to hire Practice Makes Perfect to run a summer program for all the students at their schools — no matter what their skill level — to ensure that everyone returns in the fall with the skills and knowledge they possessed the previous spring.
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Such an expansion is likely to have challenges. A 2011 study by the RAND Corporation suggests that the most effective summer learning is lead by highly skilled teachers who have experience working with children at that level.
“They more experience a teacher has teaching, say, third grade,” said Catherine Augustine, one of the study’s authors, “the more clear it is to the teacher where the child is in their development, what that child needs to know and what the teacher needs to teach in order for that child to learn.”
The weakness inherent in using unskilled teachers could become more acute as Practice Makes Perfect enrolls more of the lower- performing students who must show gains on their state test scores or be left back. Peer support seems appropriate to help a younger child, say, brush up on adding and subtracting fractions. But it seems like weak medicine indeed for a student with autism, say, or a third grader who is struggling to read. Abouelnaga says he expects that his model will evolve, but he’s sure that what the summer months look like for school children in his neighborhood will change. “What we have now in our school districts is not working,” he says. “Our lowest performing students hate summer school, and it is so expensive, our schools don’t have the money to offer instruction to students who are just a bit above that cut off point and who really need summer learning to stay on par or catch up.”
Perhaps Practice Makes Perfect will grow up to become one piece of a solution — a way to give a larger section of low-income children the kind of summer enrichment middle class students take for granted.
Peg Tyre writes about education and social policy. She is the author of “The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids The Education They Deserve” and “The Trouble With Boys.” She is also director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation, which invests in organizations that get low-income students to and through college.