Many students must start a new school year by rebuilding some of the foundational skills lost over the summer, said Edwina Oliver, an administrative lead for Summer Learning Academies, an initiative of Sarasota County Schools.
Yet there are solutions to ensure that learning doesn't stop during the summer months, she said.
Two ways to address the issue include the county’s own program, as well as a summer camp specifically targeting summer learning loss.
Summer Success Institute
Autumn McConnell, owner and founder of Summer Success Institute, said summer learning loss results in students losing 27% of their academic knowledge. That drove her to found Summer Success Institute, which also teaches personal growth and enrichment.
The camp, open for registration until May 30, has grown in popularity since it opened in 2019 at the Sarasota Suncoast Academy facility and currently serves about 400 students each summer, McConnell said.
“It’s really taken off,” she said. “It’s sort of developed a mind of its own.”
McConnell served nine years in the Sarasota County public school system, including in an administrative capacity. She oversees the curriculum and the selection of teachers, whom she contracts from across Sarasota County.
The days begin with “teacher time,” two hours devoted to reading and math covering the topics that await students in the fall.
McConnell said the curriculum, which she developed, was assembled based on her visits to school staff meetings throughout the county and her conversations with teachers about what specific knowledge students are lacking when they enter their grade level.
The camp serves all students, from those who are struggling to those who are gifted. Assistant Principal Karla Reynolds said teachers can differentiate among students in groups, which include about 15 students each, sorting them into levels according to individual needs.
Reynolds, who has taught at the camp, said one factor that contributes to the learning is that teachers are free to teach according to their own style.
“You’re given freedom to just be you as a teacher,” said Reynolds, describing a time she decided to dance and sing while teaching math — with McConnell joining in.
McConnell said when it comes to teaching, an important factor is how the students feel about their instructors, which is why she casually drops questions to students throughout the day.
The gaps that can be filled at the camp are not just academic knowledge, McConnell said. There’s also a great emphasis on personal development, which is highlighted for two days each week, through a related theme every week.
She said these themes are based on hundreds of forms she receives from teachers over the year highlighting the areas where students most need improvement socially.
“We give them tidbits — how to give an authentic thank-you. How to approach a student that you see is by themselves. All of those little how-to’s. And it's just beautiful to watch.”
McConnell said the camp’s offerings are not limited to learning gaps. There is also plenty of fun to be had.
Outside presenters are featured three days a week and have included organizations such as Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and a local beekeeper. Classes feature activities based on teachers’ hobbies, which might be sewing, music production, or another activity, with kids enjoying STEM and robotics activities as they prepare to enter middle school.
And there are bounce houses every Friday, which her niece, Marleigh McConnell, a student at the camp, said she loves.
“I don’t like the camp — I love the camp,” said first grade student William Bousman.
There’s also an emphasis on gratitude and giving back. In the morning, students give presentations on what they're grateful for, and at the end of the day they discuss the best parts of the day before leaving. Finally, there is community engagement, which could be encouraging students to clean out their closets and donate to Mothers Helping Mothers, or writing letters to veterans.
“I feel like my program really encompasses everything,” McConnell said. “It’s the full child — it’s not just a reading camp or a math camp or a karate camp. It’s really all of it in one.”
Summer Learning Academies
Edwina Oliver, an administrative lead for Summer Learning Academies, said based on current data collected on students, especially kindergarteners, the ease of students’ entry into a new grade clearly increases if they attend Sarasota County Schools' free Summer Learning Academies program.
“We can really say that that extra 24 days of learning in the summer frontloads them with some concepts they are going to see in kindergarten. We can see the impact of that,” she said.
Created in conjunction with the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, the program can be utilized by children in varying grade levels at all 10 Title I schools in Sarasota County.
Originally started in 2012 at Alta Vista Elementary, it eventually expanded to encompass the other schools, and just returned in 2022 after a two-year absence. Classes aim for a 12-1 ratio between students and teachers and use the same curriculum as schools do during the rest of the year.
There will be fun activities as well. At Booker, Tuttle, and Lamarque Elementary, there will be a program to teach kids the basics of being a doctor or veterinarian.
The program is not only offered for students struggling with reading or math, but for any students, including those seeking enrichment. Also offered at three schools is a Summer Reading Camp for eligible third graders.
Oliver said data collection on the program’s effectiveness will be expanded to all grade levels this year. She hopes to see the program eventually encompass all schools in Sarasota County.
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.