Wednesday, June 22, 2011Third-grader Elaine Ma sat at a shady table in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza dipping a paintbrush in pink, gold and green paint.
"I'm painting a house," she said as she brushed a gold swoosh on the paper. "This is magical grass."
This, said organizers of the city's Summer Learning Day at the plaza, is what summer is supposed to be about: playing, thinking, creating, and ultimately learning outside the classroom in active, fun ways.Researchers call it the summer brain drain. It affects all children, but especially those who don't actively fight it.
That's not the experience for too many children, particularly low-income kids, who spend their 10 or so weeks of summer vacation doing nothing, said Sheryl Davis, director of Mo' Magic, which helped organize Tuesday's event.
Without structured activities that stretch their minds, they "tend to gain weight and fall behind," she said. "They lose the summer. They come back to school two months behind."Overall, most students forget two months worth of math over the summer. But low-income students also lose two to three months worth of reading skills. As a result, the achievement gap between white, Asian and wealthy students and their Hispanic, black and low-income peers, each summer increasingly widens.
On Tuesday, most of the students at Civic Center Plaza were participants in nonprofit and city-sponsored summer camps and programs although some families stumbled upon the event and joined the fun, too.There didn't appear to be a single child at the event who, given a choice, would have picked a couch over the petting zoo, art project or bouncy houses.
Students who take part in summer enrichment activities, ranging from science camp, sports, family trips to museums or other programs, can boost their achievement levels, according to the National Summer Learning Association, which supported Tuesday's Summer Learning Day activities across the nation.
And the students tend to avoid packing on the pounds as well, more likely avoiding the obesity epidemic plaguing the country's youth.
In San Francisco, hundreds of primarily low-income children participate in nonprofit and city-sponsored summer programs, many featuring academic components. Those types of community programs can be critical to preventing summer learning loss, according to a study released this month by the nonprofit Rand Corp.
"They are often less expensive than school district staff, and they offer enrichment opportunities that are often similar to those experienced by middle-income youth during the summer - such as kayaking or chess, for example - that encourage students to enroll and attend, both of which are critical to program effectiveness," said Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at Rand, in a statement.
Lisa Rasmussen, who had set up her Art Cart for the event, listened to Elaine's story line and smiled.
"When children have art, they just swim in it," Rasmussen said. "They just thrive."
E-mail Jill Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page C - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Photographer: Me from an amazing day at the Civic Center Plaza!