HOUGHTON - When the Houghton-Portage Township Schools let out at mid-day Thursday, all Copper Country students went on summer vacation. But when they go back to school next fall, will they already have forgotten much of what they learned this year?
According to Brad Baltensperger, chair of the Division of Teacher Education at Michigan Technological University and a member of Houghton's board of education, summer learning loss - when students return to school in fall academically behind where they were when they left - is a widely recognized phenomenon and a major reason the U.S. lags behind some countries in educational achievement.
"Teachers spend the first month or two in the fall reviewing where they were the previous year," Baltensperger said. "You lose a month or two of teaching and learning."
Dan Roblee/Daily Mining Gazette
Houghton-Portage Elementary Principal Anders Hill, right, and the school’s teachers wave goodbye to a busload of students headed home on the last day of school Thursday. Many of the students will be participating in summer programs that help combat summer learning loss.
Dan Roblee/Daily Mining Gazette
A Houghton-Portage Elementary student waves goodbye as he leaves school on the last day of the school year Thursday.
In most European countries, he said, students spend about the same number of days in school, but more spaced-out vacations allow less time to forget lessons. In Germany, he said, summer vacation is only six weeks, instead of the standard 10 to 12 weeks in the U.S., but students get several three-week vacations spread throughout the year.
With that schedule, "students were never very far away from the learning," Baltensperger said.
Baltensperger said summer learning loss is most widely recognized at the elementary level, particularly in reading, and parents can fight it by making sure students continue reading and other academic activities in the summer. Enrichment offered through summer camps and organized activities can help, or students can stay academically sharp at home with a little help from mom and dad.
"It can be a parent sitting and reading with a child, or doing a few problems," he said. "It could be as simple as walking though the woods with a parent, talking about some of the science they see."
But when parents have to work, or when families prefer students are involved in structured activities, "it's ideal if they can have some kind of organized learning, rather than just letting things happen," Baltensperger said.
There are all kinds of camps and activities in the summer, offered through churches, 4H, Michigan Tech, local arts centers, community foundations, scout groups and more. The most extensive, and possibly the most academically-oriented program in the area, is BHK Child Development's Great Explorations summer programs.
Great Explorations, which also has after-school programs during the school year, offers academic practice and nine weeks of summer activities to about 600 students at nine school districts in the three-county area.
Some districts offer the program just for elementary students, while others have middle and high school programs as well, according to BHK's Beth Anderson. They're all available from 7:30 a.m to 5:30 p.m., five days a week, and there are no eligibility requirements, with fees figured on a scale designed to make the program accessible to families of all income levels. Students can drop in or out to accommodate other activities.
At Great Explorations, mornings are devoted to reading and math, with lots of hands-on activities to keep learning interesting. Afternoons are focused on music, art, field trips and fun.
"We have different themes each week," said Calumet Site Coordinator Laurie Stark. "Our focus is on science this year, so a lot will go along with that."
Stark said field trips would likely include visits to a local mine, to Fork Wilkins State Park to see a historical re-enactment, to Michigan's Seaman Mineral Museum and to the Relay for Life.
There may be a few students who'd rather be at home, Stark said, but she feels the majority enjoy the program. She feels GE's activities are effective to fight learning loss.
"I think it's a huge difference for those kids that are here every day," she said. "They're doing reading and math pretty much every day."
Jenn Biekkola reads at home with her daughter Sadie, 6, but doesn't worry a whole lot about summer learning loss. She said Sadie will be on a soccer team and playing both machine-pitch Little League, but she'll also be enrolled in Great Explorations. Both mother and daughter are fans of the program.
"During the summer they're still focused on learning while having fun, getting outdoors and playing. I think it's a good mix," Biekkola said.
"(Sadie) likes it," she added. "They do a lot of fun things and they take field trips."
To learn more about Great Explorations, or to register your child, call 482-3663.