“My high school basketball coach used to say, ‘No one gets better once the season starts. If you really want to get better, you put in time and effort over the summer.’” Aaron Dworkin took that lesson to heart. In June, he was named chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), which helped put summer on the map as a time for young people to sharpen their academic skills and discover new interests. Dworkin, a veteran of the nonprofit youth development field, is stepping into his new role at an exciting time for NSLA. The organization recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and is preparing to move its headquarters to Washington, D.C., where it will seek to persuade policymakers that providing a high-quality summer learning experience to every child is, in Dworkin’s words, “something we can cross off America’s to-do list.”
We talked to Dworkin about the journey that got him where he is today, how the conversation about summer learning has changed over time, and the work NSLA is doing now.*
How did you get interested in youth development? How has your background prepared you for this new position?
I’ve always been passionate about education and closing opportunity gaps. As a young person, I was in a range of schools and settings where I saw what some kids had and some didn’t. When you see that, it stays with you. I had a great appreciation for the opportunities I was given and a great commitment to making sure all young people have similar opportunities. I started a youth leadership program in New York City called Hoops and Leaders to recruit mostly men of color to be big brothers and mentors to teenage boys. That led me to study education and public policy formally at Harvard and Columbia, where I learned more about the broader nonprofit and education landscape. When I was a grad student, I was part of the team that helped start a sports-based youth development coalition called Up2Us Sports, which focuses on training youth sports coaches in youth development. I gained a national perspective to go with my local grassroots experience, and all that brought me to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charity After-School All-Stars, first as their inaugural national program director and then as president of their national network of 20 chapters. When I was at After-School All-Stars, we created and scaled lots of different summer learning programs. They were great for the for kids but doubled as terrific professional development for staff. Summer has always been one of these spaces where you can innovate and partner more to better serve kids and communities.
How is NSLA helping organizations connect their priorities to summer learning?
In the American education system, we make a commitment to kids from September to June. Then, you get to summer, and I’m not going to say it’s the wild west, but it’s a quarter of the school year, and some kids are going to camp and museums and traveling and learning around the world, while too many have little or nothing to do besides sitting on the couch or looking at their phone. There’s research to prove that over the summer months low-income students fall behind academically. They’re not as physically active, they gain weight and eat less healthily. They may not have access to meals. There are safety issues. And the effects of this are cumulative from summer to summer.
So we partner with lots of different organizations, from funders like The Wallace Foundation to school districts, libraries, housing authorities, parks and recreation centers, nonprofits and CBOs. We want to make sure they have whatever evidenced-based resources they need, whether it’s staff training, best practices for running a program, or research so they’re able to make the case locally that this matters. We work with people to draft legislation. We have a national conference every year with 500 to 700 education leaders. We also give national recognition to model programs with our Excellence in Summer Learning Awards, which are very rigorous. Hundreds of groups apply every year, and we only honor three to four programs as examples of what’s possible.
NSLA has reached a 25-year milestone. How has the field of summer learning evolved in that time?
For one thing, we’ve broadened the focus: We’re not just closing academic achievement gaps but also opportunity gaps—opportunities such as field trips, mentoring, social-emotional learning, career exploration, internships, all of which we know matter to a child’s education and development, too. If you’re taking a standardized test and there’s a question that refers to a museum or place you’ve never heard of or visited, it’s very hard to answer that question without context even if you can read it.
We’ve also expanded our notion of what summer learning is for and for whom. Summer learning isn’t just 12 weeks, it’s the center for success for the whole school year. And it’s not just for young people. It’s for adults, too. One thing I’ve really been inspired by is how much training and re-invigoration is happening among teachers and staff, so they’re fired up to go back to school. There are lots of reasons for that: They have the ability to be more creative. The ratios are smaller, so they can get to know students. There are different settings and activities. It’s less bureaucratic and reminds them why they love and got into teaching in the first place.
We’re also seeing summer learning in the workforce-readiness space. There’s been an evolution to say that summer internships are a form of summer learning. And NSLA is going to do more to advocate for paid summer internships for low income youth because unpaid internships lead to jobs but are inherently off limits to many.
People are also thinking about the power of summer in critical life transition moments. For those worried about high school dropout rates, for instance, there’s a big emphasis on the summer between eighth and ninth grade as the critical time to intervene and get kids excited. If you wait until high school, it’s too late. Similarly, in the summer between high school and college, there’s a phenomenon called the summer melt when students have gotten into college [but no one prepares them for what they’re about to experience] or even calls them to tell them when orientation is, and they do not arrive on campus for their freshman year. That’s a horrible wasted opportunity which can be prevented.
In the past, NSLA has focused on policy at the national level. Your new strategic plan puts more emphasis on the states. What can states do to promote summer learning?
States can do a lot to create policies that articulate the importance of having these programs in place. They can say we’ll give money to these programs but they have to meet standards of quality, structure, ratio, curriculum, training, data collection and supervision. They also have convening power to bring together business leaders, the nonprofit community and elected officials to make it a priority to take care of all kids all year round.
We can work at the federal level, and we are. We have a bi-partisan bill with Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon called the Summer Meals and Learning Act that would keep schools and libraries open over the summer. But because the political process is arduous at the federal level, you can be more nimble at the state level. We’re seeing a lot of governors and mayors and legislatures saying this is something we can do. There are so many resources in our communities, and they’re sometimes underleveraged. At the state level, people know what they have and what they’re good at and what their needs are. That localized control and responsiveness is what people want to see. We’re helping state departments of education think about how summer can be a solution to a lot of different problems.
What can organizations do to make the case for summer learning to parents?
Again, a lot. We do want summer learning experiences to feel different from school. We love our summers because they give us a chance to explore things we haven’t had a chance to do. If you go to a new summer program, and all of sudden there’s an arts experience you’re turned on to that you’ve never had before, then you’re finding a new skill set and a passion. What families with resources know is that every opportunity is a learning opportunity. You can play basketball, but you can also add in an article or lessons on leadership, or tie it into math in a fun way. Families are trying to find—and programs are now creating—experiences that connect arts and literacy, math and baseball, sports and social emotional learning.
It’s important to recognize not all kids live in the stereotypical two-parent household. There are incarceration trends and opioid crisis effects. It takes a village. I meet people all the time who say my kid is going to live with his grandparents for the summer. How do we make sure grandparents know what resources there are to use? Thanks to the internet there are a lot more tools you can activate than there used to be. Even if you don’t have a museum across the street, there are a lot of online resources we can direct you to.
Your annual conference is coming up in October. Can you give us a preview of the agenda?
It’s going to be in Atlanta. We’re still confirming some high-profile guests and speakers. We have three themes: One is programmatic, if you’re in direct service with kids. One is systematic if you’re coordinating all the programs in your city and state. The third is leadership if you’re the executive director or C.E.O. of an organization, working in fundraising, marketing and research. It all starts with our preconference tracks. There’s a group representing leaders of school districts who are trying to maximize the summer school experience. We have a group for librarians setting up citywide summer reading and learning experiences. For the first time, we’re bringing together summer pipeline programs, many affiliated with health institutions, that are working to get low-income or minority kids more interested in health careers. If you’re someone who’s trying to start and run a summer program for the first time, we have a professional development training called Summer Starts in September, so you can learn best practices and plan for continuous program improvement. We’re issuing a report in partnership with the United Way looking at the landscape of programs in Georgia, what’s working well, where there’s room for improvement. We’ll be putting a spotlight on our award winners. There’s something for everyone who cares about kids and leveraging summer to help them.
*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.