Q&A Corner: Sarah Pitcock, CEO at the National Summer Learning Association

Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) has spent most of her career working in summer learning programs. In honor of National Summer Learning Day, Lane Russell asked her about the importance of summer learning and where the field is heading.

You’ve dedicated much of your career to summer learning. What drives you to do this work?

I think it’s the appeal of a common sense, critical issue and the incredible people I get to work with that keeps me so focused on summer learning. I had the most wonderful summers growing up. Both of my parents worked, so I went from experience to experience – band camp, sleep away camp, ballet and theatre camps. So much of who I am today is because of the opportunities I had to take risks and learn from them in the summer. You can’t spend time in low-income schools and tell me that each and every one of those students doesn’t deserve the same summer experiences that I had, or that each and every one of them doesn’t want to feel a sense of confidence and mastery. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to shine a light on the fact that half of the children in this country have far from the idealized version of summer. Many of them lose access to books, adult mentors, organized activities, regular meals and a sense of security for a quarter of the year, every year. Summer learning is not only a moral imperative, it’s an economic imperative, and it’s an honor to represent the people who are working toward both equity and excellence in this important issue.

In the past 10 years, what has changed the most about the summer learning field? What has changed the least?  

Awareness is much higher broadly, which has created a much more favorable landscape for summer learning opportunities to grow. We don’t have to pitch or educate the media in the same way each year. “Summer learning loss” and “summer slide” are now in our lexicon, and there is much more widespread interest in the issue. NSLA is far from the only group beating the drum on summer learning. There are too many local efforts to count, and several states are implementing or developing their own summer learning campaigns. I think we’ve done a great job of creating an echo chamber so that leaders of other educational and developmental efforts see summer learning as one more tool in their toolbox for change. In terms of what’s changed the least, I think we still suffer from misperceptions of summer learning as remedial and punitive. There’s still a stigma attached to “summer school” that affects participation among the children who need summer learning the most.

Where do you see the summer learning movement heading in the next five years? 

I think we’ll see it continue to be more integrated into municipal collective impact and pipeline initiatives. Summer learning is pivotal for different reasons throughout a child’s life, including transitions into kindergarten, middle and high school and college, so cities will need to build the infrastructure to support it at scale. I think the field will get smarter about measuring the right outcomes in the right way and sharing and aligning data more with school year programs. School districts will increasingly move beyond strictly remedial models to embrace community partnerships and innovative professional development for teachers in the summer. I think summer learning will boom in the next five years through technology. We’re already seeing tremendous growth in the marketplace of products available for anytime, anywhere summer learning, and many of them provide excellent data for both teachers and parents. My greatest hope, however, is that we see many more school districts and citywide systems collecting data on summer program participation. That would be a game changer.

Why is Summer Learning Day important? 

I’ve spent the last five summers crisscrossing the country visiting summer programs – I went to 15 states last summer alone. We can write case studies and take photos and video in programs, but there is nothing like being there yourself to understand why they are so life changing. Summer Learning Day draws parents, community leaders, members of the media and policy makers into programs to have those experiences themselves. It’s about the solution, not the problem. It’s a chance to say – we know what kids need, and we’re doing it. Help us grow.

What is one myth about summer learning that you would like to bust? 

I think the biggest myth is that summer learning has to happen in a desk or a school or even in an organized program. If we are going to achieve a population-level reduction in the achievement gap, we have to think of summer learning as living in every nook and cranny of our communities and our homes. We have to empower a broad base of community educators, parents and young people to seek out and facilitate summer learning opportunities of all kinds.

The National Summer Learning Association is an Alliance partner. Learn more about National Summer Learning Day here