By Tom Barnidge
Contra Costa Times columnist

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson visited the Bay Area to deliver a message last week. Yes, schools need more money, but that’s not why he was at the microphone on this occasion.

He was telling anyone willing to listen that when the last bell of the school year rings, it shouldn’t mark the end of students’ education.

Field trips with the family, summer camps, visits to libraries and museums all serve to keep a child’s mind engaged. Trouble is, far too many kids in lower-income families often are without access to such activities.

The net result, he explained, is a phenomenon called “summer learning loss.” It seems the brain atrophies the same way athletes’ muscles do if allowed to go three months without exercise.

“We know from research at Johns Hopkins University that students who have a rich summer learning environment maintain what they learned in the previous nine months,” Torlakson said. “The students who don’t have that stimulating experience lose two of the nine months of math and English learning they had accomplished.”

That puts them at a disadvantage when school resumes.

The study, conducted by sociology professor Karl Alexander beginning in 1982, tracked the academic progress of 800 Baltimore students from first grade though adulthood. He found that “two-thirds of the ninth-grade academic achievement gap between disadvantaged youngsters and their more advantaged peers can be explained by what happens over the summer during their elementary school years.”Hence, the “Summer Matters” program that Torlakson unveiled with the assistance of Jennifer Peck, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Children and Youth advocacy group.

Her organization, which has brought more than $70 million to public schools and their community partners in the past nine years, has stepped to the forefront in seeking funding and promoting summer enrichment programs for the underprivileged.

“Heightening awareness is a huge piece of the puzzle,” Peck said. “There’s still a lack of awareness among parents about why it’s so important to keep their kids learning and reading over the summer.

“A lot of parents, particularly working parents, like to have time off in the summer — and more informal time with their kids — sometimes to the detriment of their academic success.”

Or, put less delicately: Leaving the kids plunked in front of the TV all summer will turn their brains to mush.

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