Supporting Kids When School Doors Are Closed: Q&A with Sarah Pitcock of the National Summer Learning Association

Note: The New York Life Foundation has supported the important work of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) for over a decade. In this Q&A, CEO Sarah Pitcock shares how the NSLA is tackling one of the biggest issues facing our educational system today — the loss of learning over the summer months, particularly among low-income kids.

What's the mission of the National Summer Learning Association?

The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) is the only national nonprofit focused on closing the achievement gap by increasing summer learning opportunities for all youth. NSLA offers expertise and support for programs and communities and advocates for summer learning as a solution for equity and excellence in education.

What kind of problems does the NSLA see in our educational system today—and how does it seek to address them?

When the school doors close for the summer, many families struggle to find safe and enriching places for their children, and those struggles have a substantial impact on how well young people do in school and in life. Each summer, all young people lose months’ worth of math skills, and low-income youth lose months’ worth of reading skills, even while higher-income youth keep gaining. Our schools and society operate on very outdated notions of parental care and home life. They don’t account for the many households of working parents and the rising costs of child care or camp. The reality is, we can’t walk away from children and families for three months a year, every year, and expect them to be okay. NSLA works to raise awareness of these issues; recognize and disseminate what works in the summer; and create ways for summer program providers, researchers, and policymakers to connect and learn from each other.

National Summer Learning Day was July 14. What message did you spread through this dedicated awareness day?

National Summer Learning Day is about celebrating the amazing summer learning opportunities happening in communities all across the country and using that visibility to help them sustain and grow. We hope to spread a message that learning is fun and learning is everywhere, whether you’re at home, at school, at the library or museum, or at the park. Summer learning can be math or reading, and it can also be a summer job or volunteer opportunity.

New York Life has supported the NSLA for more than a decade through its Excellence in Summer Learning Award. What do you look for in an award recipient?

You might be surprised to know we look for 80 different indicators of quality in our rigorous Excellence Award process! After years of reviewing applications and visiting finalists, I can tell you a few things that stand out. First, we look for a program that really knows its community of learners — what they need, what they want, where they come from, and where they are going. Then, we look for staff who are prepared to help those learners achieve those goals. You know it’s a great program when the kids and the staff come back year after year, so we look for that as well. Finally, there’s always something special in the “culture” of an award-winning program. Maybe it’s a daily ritual, a set of principles or some other unifying feature that brings a sense of belonging and heart to a program, but it’s usually what sets them apart.

Last year, New York Life offered the NSLA founder’s award for the first time. What’s different/special about this new award?

We created the Founder’s Award as a way to recognize informal, drop-in, or other models that didn’t quite fit the mold of the Excellence Award but are critical options for families and communities. There are so many innovative models out there happening online, in mobile vans and busses, in libraries and rural outposts, and the Founder’s Award enables us to recognize them, too.

Over this summer, what tips would you offer to parents and other caregivers who want to keep their kids on track to thrive educationally?

The number one thing I tell parents and other caregivers is to find out what their children are really interested in, and build some summer learning opportunities around those interests. So, if the reading list from school is met with moans and groans, help them find something they want to read, even if it’s a magazine or graphic novel. Especially if their interest is something they don’t get to practice or explore much at school, like engineering or theater, try to find online or community based programs that offer that experience. At home, families can also plan projects and daily activities that keep learning going. Plot out and plan a garden together, practice fractions while baking, have an international family store to practice currency conversions and making change. Parents are their children’s first and best teachers, and everyone has what it takes to keep learning going during the summer.