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Experts worry about summer learning loss for low-income families (poll)

5-year old Ariana Gonzalez paints a heart as she and her sister hang out at home during the summer.
5-year old Ariana Gonzalez paints a heart as she and her sister hang out at home during the summer.
Deepa Fernandes

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SUMMER LEARNING: Education experts say idle summers can put kids behind when they go back to school in the fall. KPCC spoke to teachers, parents and kids across Southern California about what they're learning this summer — or not. Third in a series.

Five-year-old Ariana Gonzalez is at home in Long Beach with her mom and nine year-old sister, painting on the cement driveway and begging for Popsicles.

Ariana just finished preschool – where she loved “playing with friends” - and will start kindergarten in the Fall.

Between doing the dishes and the laundry and planning dinner, her mom, Celine Gonzalez, scours the internet for free summer activities for the girls. It’s slim pickings, she said.

“So we’re just here at the house, hanging out and doing some stuff,“ Gonzalez said.

The Gonzalez family is in many ways an ordinary suburban family – they own their own home in Long Beach and just paid off the car. Yet it is one of a growing number of families struggling to find affordable and engaging summer care or activities for kids. (Hear more of the Gonzalez family story in the radio feature.)

For some time experts have been tracking what happens to kids’ learning when they are not in a structured summer program. It’s not good. They call it “summer learning loss.”

With the new national focus on universal preschool, Gary Huggins of the National Summer Learning Association, said policy makers need to also pay attention to what goes on during the summer.

Huggins cites research from Johns Hopkins University that shows that “up to two thirds of the achievement gap in reading between low income students and their peers can be attributed to summer learning loss.”

The summer learning association cites 100 years of research showing kids score worse on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than at the beginning.

RELATED: Parents: How do you keep your kids engaged academically throughout summer?

Yet low-income kids have few educational options. Los Angeles Universal Preschool, the largest provider of free preschool in Los Angeles, used to have enough money for its providers to keep children year round. But then its budget got cut.

“Once our budget had lowered, we wanted to ensure that our providers had enough money for the program year,” said LAUP supervisor, Sharon Muhammad. That left them few options. “We had to make a decision that we would not fund the summer programs.”

Astrid Feist, a preschool support coach for the group, points out that even free activities at the local library or YMCA only last a few hours, and they require a parent or caregiver to drive kids to and fro. She says that’s unrealistic for working poor parents.

As a result, she said many low-income children who are home with an older sibling or babysitter just while away their days.

“You know a lot of them are going to sit and watch TV and not really be productive in the summer,” she said.

During the school year, she traveled to many Long Beach preschools funded by LAUP and is thrilled at the progress these children were making in preschool. It saddens her to think that they’re forgetting lessons.

“You put so much work in those 10 months that schools are open and then for two months that school is closed they lose all that information going into kindergarten,” Feist said.

Rosario Gutierrez agrees. She runs a small preschool in Long Beach and fears over the summer her young students will forget everything they learned all year.

Gutierrez said her students’ parents are all low-wage workers and she doesn’t think any are able to be home with the children over the summer. Still, she spent her final weeks before the program let out helping caregivers understand the importance of keeping up the children’s learning.

She advised the parents to help preschoolers to practice the alphabet, reading and counting.

“I usually tell them to count the spoons, forks, beans,” she said. “Count anything, anything available at home!”