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Summer break is almost here, but should it be?

As the school year comes to an end, teachers and students alike are counting down the days until summer break. While schools are winding down and teachers are preparing for a much needed recharge, parents like me are thinking about how to keep our children engaged this summer.

I will start the summer motivated to get my kids outside, to fun activities, and encourage them to read, write and play every day. By the end of the summer, my children will be bored of playing (yes, they live hard lives), won’t want to go outside, and will likely be rotting away in front of screens and hanging out in their PJs most of the day. 

The mom guilt will start setting in and I will be counting down the days until I can put them back into a structured schedule and back in school. 

It makes me question whether the amount of time students spend in school throughout the year should be re-evaluated. Why do students have such a long summer break and why is Colorado so behind in student contact days (more on that below)?

I am grateful to Denver Public Schools for providing an important summer resource for families like mine. 

While many students take an academic break over the summer, one of my children is twice-exceptional, and behind grade level in reading and writing. As a result, I have looked for solutions to support my child’s learning without spending a fortune. 

For the second year in a row, I have enrolled my child in  Summer Connections, DPS’s free summer school program for first- through fifth-graders. This under-recognized program provides five weeks of academic programming in small classes, offers transportation, and breakfast and lunch. 

A huge bonus –  the summer programs are located at schools with air conditioning. 

Summer school is an important part of our public school system. Most education stakeholders know about the dreaded summer slide, and while research over the last few years (especially post-COVID) differs on which student groups are most susceptible to learning loss, what is clear is summer learning does have a significant positive effect on student academic outcomes. 

Students see the best academic outcomes after attending five- to six-week, full-day summer programs, focused on reading and math, while also incorporating enrichment activities and project based learning. (For more information see CDE’s Summer Learning Best Practices and the Wallace Foundation’s Report, Getting to Work on Summer Learning.)

In addition to being good for kids, summer school alleviates pressure on working parents like me and my husband. We know our child is in a structured, engaging, constructive environment providing both academic and enrichment programming. It allows us to continue working and not have to worry about finding alternative affordable childcare options during the five-weeks they are in summer school. 

For our family, that is a savings of about $1,400. 

We know what it takes to achieve learning outcomes for students over the summer, and the conditions to create those outcomes are relatively simple as outlined above: five weeks of full-day programming mixing both academic and enrichment activities. 

The challenge of achieving positive academic outcomes for students in these programs is largely driven by student attendance. Students must attend the summer programming consistently to benefit from it. 

All of this leads me to question why we don’t extend the school year by five weeks and make those last five weeks lower pressure and more fun for both students and teachers. 

Creating more joyful learning at the end of the year may create a condition where students, educators, and parents alike see the end of the year with happiness instead of relief or dread. 

Colorado has a minimum of 160 mandated school contact days, the lowest in the country. Most states require 180 contact days. That is a difference of 20 days or four weeks.

Increasing Colorado’s school calendar would open a fierce debate at the legislature. But if lawmakers can fully fund education after 30 years, surely they can open the discussion about extending the school year. 

As the state’s largest school district and often a leader in lobbying for important education bills, DPS can and should advocate for this change with the school board taking the lead. 

Funding and collective bargaining will likely be the biggest hurdles in achieving a month-long increase to the academic calendar. We should invest more in our schools and pay our educators far more. 

Perhaps this policy change would force us to do just that, resulting in increased academic outcomes for all children. 

That, in turn, would create downstream and lasting societal benefits.