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American Schools’ $60 Billion Problem

Jun 07, 2016

This essay originally appeared in raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on culture and diversity. Sign up here.

Summer time is no picnic for low income kids of color in the U.S.

There are 50 million public school students in America and, on average, they lose between one and three months of learning every summer. Educators and social scientists call it the “the summer slide.” The inefficiencies are startling. “We invest $10-12,000 per child during the school year, then walk away for two to three months,” says Matthew Boulay author and founder of the National Summer Learning Association. The loss to taxpayers is upwards of $60 billion. “We let 20% of their academic growth be lost over the summer. And we do that summer after summer.”

But the price is particularly steep for kids in poorer neighborhoods, whose parents and caretakers often work long hours and can’t afford a summer program. This leaves these children permanently behind. “When you start with an expectation that a child is not going to be able to perform, you respond to the child with disproportionate punishment,” says Jim Shelton, the former Deputy Secretary of Education who now leads the education efforts for Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s foundation. Once they fall behind, they tend to get shunted into remedial classes or drift away. Unsupervised time in the summer leads to a host of obvious problems, but one is particularly tragic: Kids are going hungry. Some one in six kids typically qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, says Boulay. They often can’t find or don’t have access to a similar program in the summer.

What’s really troubling, says Richard Berlin, is that no public policy has emerged to deal with this problem. Berlin runs a successful summer and year-round program called Harlem RBI that serves 1,700 kids a year. “The private sector has really led here, both private foundations and corporate America,” he says, investing in and influencing smart, local programs and encouraging employees to volunteer their time. Summer programs tend to be less structured, less formal, more fun, and ripe for innovation. “They’re more experiential,” he says, with an emphasis on soft skills and exposure to the larger world. And older kids can come back and work as counselors, all the way through college. “Youth unemployment is also an issue in this community.” After all, it was a beautiful summer day in Ferguson when an underemployed Michael Brown was shot, just days away from attending community college. But putting the moral issues aside, Berlin says, “If you want to create the next generation workforce, you can’t leave 15% to 20% of their year uncovered.”

It’s a problem that’s ripe for smart corporate thinking. Umpqua Bank, the largest community bank on the West Coast, has made stopping the summer slide the centerpiece of its employee voluntarism efforts, allowing employees to direct grants to innovative programs and giving up to 40 hours off to spend time with kids doing cool stuff. “Similar programs nationally [have] average participation of approximately 30%,” Umpqua’s Eve Callahan told me by email. “At Umpqua, our average associate participation each year is 70%.”

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