When an Operation Shoestring staff member asked 7-year-old Teaonie what her favorite part of our summer camp was, she thought long and hard before answering. This is understandable considering all the activities there, from swimming to horseback riding to creative writing to science experiments, and more. In the end, she went big picture: "I like the being outside parts best!"
The significance of that answer isn't lost on me. Teaonie's mother had just finished sharing with our staffer that without our camp, Teaonie and her 9-year-old brother Terrell would be left to entertain themselves in the streets around their neighborhood all summer. It's something too many children in our community face while their parents go to school or work to make ends meet—ends that won't necessarily cover the cost of a camp or other safe, enriching summer-time options for their children. And all of us pay the price.
Research from summerlearning.org suggests that unequal access to summer learning opportunities accounts for more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students. While middle-class kids take family trips to museums or engage in some kind of organized learning-based programming, hundreds of children in low-income communities across Mississippi will spend their summers at home or with a relative or neighbor without access to any of these activities. As the years pass, it's easy to see how these kids can fall further and further behind at school. It shouldn't be surprising that this "summer slide," as it's often called, is a huge factor in contributing to the statistics that show that low-income students are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.
The research also shows that most students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math computational skills over the summer months, but low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers actually make slight gains in that area. This is a particularly sensitive topic right now, considering the concern surrounding the less-than-ideal results of Mississippi's so-called third-grade reading gate test students took this year. Today, nearly 15 percent of this year's public-school third graders in our state may not move to the fourth grade.
Let me be clear. I'm not pretending to offer a silver bullet for our city and state's educational—and relatedly, economic—struggles. But when the data tell us that investing in accessible quality summer programs for the children in our state who wouldn't otherwise have access can make the difference between dropping out or finishing school for these students, it seems like a no-brainer.
The good news is that many people and organizations are already making efforts toward this end. Here in Jackson, we at Operation Shoestring have enjoyed being a part of the growing momentum of the Alignment Jackson initiative that brings local businesses, nonprofits and other organizations together with Jackson Public Schools to support the successful education of our children, including providing accessible learning opportunities through these summer months. But these efforts are only a start. The larger solution to the issue of summer slide and our children's education in general won't be reached without all of us involved, whether or not we live in the city limits, send our kids to a public or private school, or even have children. The success of our children impacts all of us; therefore, access to quality learning opportunities for kids like Teaonie and her brother Terrell should matter to everyone.
Help support this year's Operation Shoestring summer camp for 250 central Jackson kids by participating in its Shoestring Summer Fling fundraiser June 4 from 7 to 10 p.m. during Fondren's First Thursday. For more information, visit operationshoestring.org. Robert Langford is the executive director of the organization, which provides year-round academic, social and emotional support to children in central Jackson from pre-K through 12th grade while supporting and providing resources to their families.