The National Summer Learning Project

The National Summer Learning Project (NSLP) is the largest study ever to look at whether and how large-scale, voluntary summer learning programs offered by public school districts can help improve educational outcomes for children. Supported by The Wallace Foundation, it is a partnership that includes The RAND Corporation; Boston Public Schools (with the community-based organization Boston After School and Beyond); Dallas Independent School District (with the community-based organization Big Thought); Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, FL; Pittsburgh Public Schools; and the Rochester City School District.

The research component of the project included a randomized controlled trial, or RCT, along with studies examining how summer learning programs were implemented. Conducted by RAND, the RCT focused on students who were in 3rd grade in spring, 2013. Students who signed up to take part in the districts’ summer learning programs were randomly selected to participate or not participate in the program for two summers (2013 and 2014). RAND will continue to gather a wide range of data from both groups of students through the 7th grade, including school year grades and attendance, student performance on standardized tests of math and reading, and measures of social-emotional skills. To learn more about the study and the results published to date, visit the summer learning section of The Wallace Foundation’s Knowledge Center.

The opportunity gap is real.
Upper-income parents spend nearly 7 times more on enrichment activities
Source: Russel Sage Foundation
Let’s close the opportunity gap.
To support the study, districts had to recruit a total of more than 5,600 children who were in the 3rd grade in 2013. For each of the districts and their partners, this meant attracting more than twice the number of students they recruited in the past. The significant increase was because enough students need to be part of the study for the study to offer generalizable results. All the recruited students were part of the study but only half of the students recruited were randomly selected to take part in the summer learning programs (made possible by the fact that there was limited funding for slots) —thus the reason for doubling the number of students recruited in previous summers. It also meant recruiting children most likely to benefit from the summer learning programs. This required targeted and intentional approaches to outreach, engagement and recruitment.

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​What support was provided to each of the school districts?

The five public school districts that participated in the NSLP were selected because of their commitment to and experience operating summer learning programs. Yet even for these districts and their partners, recruitment was not a core competency. The Wallace Foundation engaged Crosby Marketing Communications, a communications firm with a strong background in social marketing (applying the principles of marketing to efforts to promote the common good or encourage positive, healthy behaviors), to collaborate with and support the districts.

Crosby provided technical assistance to the districts, helping each of the districts and their partners develop written recruitment plans, including identifying approaches and tactics; creating messaging to inform outreach to parents and students; developing protocols for tracking recruitment activities and registrations; and identifying potential solutions when recruitment numbers lagged. Crosby’s role was, to a large degree, that of “coach.” Implementation of the recruitment programs was completed by each district. This ranged from writing, producing and distributing materials to coordinating outreach by individual schools to planning and holding events to tracking and reporting registration data.

Children from low-income families
take part in out-of-school activities at half the rate of their more affluent peers.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
For many students, summer learning will open new worlds.
​How information was gathered for this guide

The guidance and lessons presented in this guide are based primarily on the experiences of the districts that participated in the NSLP and their partners. The observations and lessons learned by Crosby and the Wallace team, both gained from working closely with each of the districts and monitoring progress of the districts’ recruitment efforts, form the foundation for this guide. In addition, focus groups conducted with parents informs much of the discussion about effective messaging presented in this guide.

While the lessons learned and the guidance we provide here relate directly to public school districts, we do feel that much of what we offer in this guide may be applicable to other settings, such as community-based organizations that need to effectively engage parents, youth and children to meet their goals and objectives.

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The five districts’ success in recruitment

The five school districts and their partners participating in the NSLP each successfully designed and implemented a recruitment program. While we learned numerous lessons—including, as shared on the following pages, some of what does not work—each district did exceed their recruitment goals, ensuring the ultimate success of the study.

Number of rising fourth-graders recruited to summer programs
Of course, getting parents to register their children and apply for summer learning programs was but one step, albeit a very important step. The districts and their partners also needed to get the children to show up when the summer learning programs’ doors opened. Indeed, no-show rates—the percentage of children who registered but never attended the program—was a problem in past years. No-show rates in the summer of 2012 were as high as 45 percent. In the summer of 2013, the districts and their partners significantly reduced these percentages by improving outreach to parents and students between acceptance and the start of classes, as is discussed later in this guide. In the three districts where comparable data existed in the summers of 2012 and 2013, the no-show rates(*) decreased.
Improved recruitment communications reduced no-show rates for summer programs

There is a third component of parent and student engagement when it comes to a voluntary summer learning program—ongoing attendance. This guide does not delve into the efforts the districts and their partners made to promote ongoing attendance. Increasing attendance over the course of the summer program remained a consistent challenge for the districts, though some districts have seen improvement utilizing a variety of strategies and tactics. These include a strong focus on building a warm and welcoming culture and helping students develop relationships with staff and friendships with other students; this is similar to a key this guide discusses on page 14. For further discussion of attendance and summer learning, we refer you to RAND’s publication, Learning from Summer: Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Urban Youth.

* In year two of the RCT, 2014, the goal for each district was to re-register (or retain) the same children who had applied for and were randomly accepted into the program and to get as many of these children to attend as possible. Some of the districts struggled to achieve this goal. It is only a hypothesis, but we think that this may be due to two factors. One, getting the same children to attend the same program two years running may be particularly challenging, especially when these children have aged from rising 4th graders to rising 5th graders. Second, implementation challenges that large, urban districts must contend with when implementing a large-scale outreach program may be particularly salient and impactful when seeking to bring the same children back for a second consecutive year; challenges included maintaining correct contact information for parents.