There is a prevailing myth about Sarasota in the summertime. Supposedly, the scorching heat and sudden rain showers drive our beloved visitors away, and activity in our town grinds to a halt, pausing life before seasonal residents return. While there is no denying our region’s population ebbs and flows across the calendar, in my experience, the spirit and enthusiasm of our community never wanes, especially for those of us who live here year-round.
For young learners and their families, summer is a time to dive into a world of exciting possibilities, discover something new and become closer and more connected than ever before while having some fun along the way. Summer learning acts like a refreshing breeze that energizes our children, families and community to broaden their horizons, with our local schools at the ready. I find the intersection of all these opportunities is at the heart of the Sarasota County School District’s Summer Learning Academies.
Since their beginnings as a pilot program in 2012, powered by the vision of Joe and Mary Kay Henson and Dr. Barbara Shirley at Alta Vista Elementary School, Summer Learning Academies have taken a leading role in helping improve early literacy through a two-generation approach and empower families with a broad range of supports to reach their full potential.
From the moment the last school bell rings, the shadow of summer learning loss – “summer slide” – looms large over our community’s most vulnerable families, leaving many schoolchildren returning to school behind their peers. Summer Learning Academies in Sarasota County are high-quality, free summer programs designed to prepare incoming kindergarten students to enter the classroom ready to learn, prevent summer learning loss for those returning, and close the achievement gap for all through intentional learning time.
This summer, we reached a “first” for our community in summer learning. For six weeks, schoolteachers at all 12 Title 1 elementary schools continued their important role, leading four-day-a-week lessons beginning at 9am with more than 1,800 students enrolled. From building robotic tadpoles to brainstorming solutions to save our oceans, these morning academic lessons are integrally tied to curriculum to ensure meaningful connections are matched with educational standards.
And the work in education doesn’t just continue in the summer with our teachers. We were proud to support the afternoon enrichment experiences this year that round out the daily plan of Summer Learning Academies. This means relying on the educators connecting with our dynamic arts and science organizations who also contribute to the richness of our community all year long.
Educators and community members across our four counties recognize these merits and share their experiences, talents, and gifts to build meaningful experiences for families. Just this summer, young learners were able to learn and grow with students from the Ringling College of Art and Design, clowns from the Circus Arts Conservatory, artists supported by the Van Wezel Foundation, and many more terrific local nonprofits. These opportunities are not only available to current K-3 students, but also to incoming kindergarteners, preparing them to enter the classroom and learn starting on day one.
Reflecting our multi-generational philosophy, parents are also enriched through the Summer Learning Academies. Once a week, parents and family members of the students take part in an evening session together called “Parent University.” These classes cover topics such as family wellness, career development and English education to empower parents to take an active role in their child’s education. With the whole family involved, young learners, parents and educators feel like they are a part of a connected community with a powerful shared goal.
As a testament to all the community members who make these opportunities possible, the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading was recognized this year as a national pacesetter for the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. None of these achievements would’ve been possible without the energy and support of the broad coalition of community members behind the ideals of summer learning.
If you still think of Sarasota in the dog days of summer as slow and uneventful, your homework will show something different. Our community and its zeal for learning has never been livelier with Summer Learning Academies leading the charge in transforming the lives of families through education.
Photo courtesy of Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading: Students read at Sarasota’s Summer Learning Academy.