United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley

United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley

It’s called the “summer slide,” and it’s not as much fun as it sounds. The expression is a euphemism for when kids start forgetting what they learned the previous school year once a long break ensues. According to the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, children from low-income families are most susceptible.

“It happens every summer with potentially every kid,” said Laura McHugh, associate vice president in charge of marketing and communications for the local United Way. “Kids, after they end the school year, lose a little bit of what they learned.” Children who lack opportunities for access to high-quality summer learning experiences are particularly vulnerable, she said.

Students can lose up to a month of learning retention for every month out of school, McHugh said. According to the United Way’s website, that can add up to the most vulnerable students falling two or three grade levels behind their peers by the end of 5th grade. Another disturbing statistic is that children from low-income families not reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade are 13 times more likely to drop out of school.

These realizations prompted United Way to partner with more than 100 local agencies, from boys and girls clubs, to school districts to libraries, in order to facilitate summer learning. The program has been so successful, McHugh said, that United Way ramped up its funding and now supports these programs with close to $500,000 annually. “Investment increased significantly about two years ago after seeing marked increase in success.”

Even with that robust commitment, she said, the programs still fall short of need, and United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley is continually looking to engage new partners. Summer learning doesn’t necessarily—or even often—happen in classroom format, McHugh said. “There are all kinds of ways summer learning takes place that make it fun and accessible,” she said, offering up the example of a partnership with the local Wildlands Conservancy in Emmaus.

While online learning has often been a focal point of summer learning programs, families have become a bit satiated with that approach as schools have been shuttered due to the coronavirus crisis, said Akshara Vivekananthan, assistant director of early childhood and summer learning for the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. With that in mind, she said, the agency is working with its partners to facilitate ways to keep summer learning fun and engaging—at home, but away from the computer screen.

“This year we’re not looking at physical learning with our partners, but we’re trying to explore alternatives to online learning,” she said. “We’re keeping in mind families have been doing online learning since early March.” Approaches being explored, Vivekananthan said, include working with partners to build resource kits that can engage family learning at home without relying on the Internet. We’re brainstorming what it would look like to involve STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curricula] with adventure, recreation and art and say, ‘Here are all the supplies you need.’” United Way is currently working with its partners to cultivate those supplies—including books and suggested activities—and deliver them.

This year we’re not looking at physical learning with our partners, but we’re trying to explore alternatives to online learning.

“Talking to partners and listening to the perspectives of families, we’ve been shapeshifting into wellness support and saying ‘We’re going to help you, and you’re doing a great job.’ This summer, instead of focusing on the summer slide, we’re saying ‘Let’s just kind of be there for one another, here’s what you can do, and don’t worry about that other stuff right now.’ We’re working with our partners on problem solving and supporting families the best we can.”

Updated information, including United Way’s ongoing local response to COVID-19, can be found at unitedwayglv.org. Other partners and resources for families educating their kids at home include Lehigh Valley Reads (lehighvalleyreads.org) and PBS39.

“Beginning at the start of March, [PBS39] took their programming and aligned it with core learning coming out of the school districts,” Vivekananthan said, adding that these efforts have included offering K-5 curriculum from 7:30 a.m to 5 p.m. “Every day, they have been showcasing programing that those grades would be learning.”

United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley is currently working with its partners to gather all summer learning resources in one place, Vivekananthan said. Go to unitedwayglv.org and lehighvalleyreads.org for updated information.

“The goal is to collectively gather information from all of our summer learning partners so that families can access that information on one page.”

National Summer Learning Week, organized by the National Summer Learning Association, takes place in July. Vivekananthan said the local effort will continue to focus more on wellness versus potentially falling behind, and that both the local and national effort will engage and inform grade-level reading communities across the country.

“We’re really looking forward to supporting families with alternative resources for summer learning and encourage them to go online to United Way Lehigh and Lehigh Valley Reads to find out the latest information.”


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