Education Spotlight: Nikki Wilks and Combating the “Summer Slide”

 

Nikki Wilks, 12th grade English teacher at Kingsbury High School, shares insight on how to maintain students’ academic gains and to promote their continued growth to be successful inside and outside of the classroom.

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The end of the school year is always a bittersweet time for teachers and students alike. Teachers are worn out, and students are ready for summer. There is this odd sense of nostalgia in the air as the teachers remember that even the kid that drives them crazy is one that they also love and will think about frequently over the summer, and students realize that the crazy, nagging teacher is one they value more than they’d like to admit. Students get excited about hanging out with their friends and either bring it into the school building in the midst of end of semester projects or start the vacation a bit early as they slowly disappear from the school and attendance numbers drop.

As I wrap up year two of flying solo in the classroom, I think about the gains my students have made both in reading and in character values, and I worry about their summer. I know that many of my students will not touch another book until August rolls around again. I know some students will struggle to find multiple meals a day, and I worry about the alluring life that the streets can offer a child that is lacking in direction, focus, and support. Mainly I think about the fact that no matter how hard I work during the school year, many of my students do not have the same summer opportunities that their peers across the county have. And I think about how this works against all the progress we’ve worked so desperately to make during the year.

Right around now and again in August, articles will pop up on all of the education sites and blogs we teachers read about the “summer slide.” This is a very real occurrence for our students where they lose much of the gains made the year before. Educators define the “achievement gap” as the difference in academic achievement between different students based on geography, socioeconomic status, or race. An infographic by the National Summer Learning Association cites that the “summer slide” can account for up to two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap in reading. When I hear that statistic, I think about how we as a larger community can work to offset that piece  of the gap.

For the past two summers, I have had the privilege of working with Streets Ministries to do just that. Streets offers a program for rising juniors and seniors called Summer Institute. Students apply for a spot in the program and then are offered intensive instruction in English and Math in an effort to help improve ACT scores, provide glimpses of what college life is like, and help prepare students in practical aspects of budgeting, resume building, interviewing, etc. Students earned paychecks based on their academic performance in an English and math class.

This experience was illuminating for me as a teacher and as a person to see just how significant this experience is for my students. I have now taught two groups of students at Summer Institute, and I have had the privilege of teaching two of those students again in senior English class at Kingsbury. During the summer when I worked with my students, I felt as if my work with them was not enough. They deserved so much more than what they were receiving academically, both during the school year and through Summer Institute. . However, as I sit on the eve of the one student’s graduation and think about how far the other has come in wrapping up his first year of undergrad, I know that our work had value. My students gained a lot in their month at Summer Institute with Streets.

My first student graduated last May and has just finished up his freshman year at Mississippi Valley. When I saw him at the Class of 2015’s Class Day recently , he told me how first semester was hard to navigate while he found his rhythm, but how second semester went much better and he felt proud of what he had accomplished as he beamed from ear to ear. My second student will be graduating with the Class of 2015 this Saturday. Her story is remarkable because she is a student that would typically suffer immensely from the “summer slide”, and she is also an English Language Learner . For her semester exam, she gave a solid presentation on the health benefits of drinking more water. Additionally, I have watched her grow and blossom in confidence. She used to be scared of assignments when I first met her, but now , she confidently breaks assignments down in manageable tasks. She  knows how to communicate effectively both with her classmates and her teachers to gain the resources she needs to be successful. Both are a product of what even just a month of a summer program can do for a child in an inner-city school.

If  I could offer one piece of advice to parents, family members, mentors, and children, it is this: regardless of what your summer looks like, whether you go to camps and conferences, work, or play video games all summer, please make sure you get a library card and read a book every couple of weeks. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare or other books you are typically given in school. Find something that sparks your interest and dig in. You can control your education and it all starts with a library card.

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