Skip to main content

Top 7 Actions States Can Take to Support Summer Learning

4 smiling high school students crouch down next to a garden row filled with plants. One holds a watering can. Across the row, an older teacher wearing gloves and an apron smiles at the students.

As students across the country set aside their backpacks for the summer, parents and caregivers wrestle with how to keep youth safe and engaged for the quarter of the year when school is not in session. 

Summer programs can vary in their focus, from academic acceleration to enrichment to career exploration. In many cases, summer opportunities help support the whole child during the months that the schoolhouse doors are closed by providing physical and mental health supports; opportunities to develop social, academic, and other skills; and engagement with communities and families. These programs can also support working families by providing safe, caring environments for students during the workday. 

States can play a key role in supporting summer programs and their providers. A forthcoming study from the Learning Policy Institute, funded by the Wallace Foundation, analyzes the summer learning programs of nine states (Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Vermont) and points to seven actions states can take to strengthen and sustain their summer learning programs

1. Set a vision and purpose for state support for summer learning. 

Starting with a unified vision for how investments in summer learning will benefit students helps to garner support for initial and ongoing investment across the state. When time, capacity, and resources are limited, it’s critical for all actors to be rowing in the same direction. Depending on the state, vision setting began in different locations—e.g., the state education agency (SEA), the governor’s office, the legislature—but typically framed summer learning as a means of advancing broader state priorities for youth, education, and the state economy, which encouraged buy-in from diverse stakeholder groups.

A clearly articulated vision also could inform the design of state-funded grant programs in alignment with state goals and priorities, thus helping to maximize the impact of state investment. By requiring funded providers to adopt certain programmatic features, vision-aligned grant programs could coordinate what was, in many cases, a diverse statewide ecosystem of summer program providers around common goals and priorities. For example, the top priority behind Tennessee’s summer program was to expand academic learning time, with the ultimate goal of remediating and accelerating student learning following pandemic-era disruptions. To support this goal, the enacted legislation establishes minimum time requirements for academic intervention, as well as staffing qualification and curriculum requirements.  

Many state-level summer programs serve more than one purpose, including advancing students academically, enriching them socially and emotionally, building their career prospects, and supporting working families. Whatever the state’s goal, it is important that summer programs are “framed as a must, not a want,” as a state leader in Vermont noted. 

2. Engage coalitions that can build support for summer programs. 

Coalition building was, in most cases, a key strategy that helped initiate and sustain state investment. Across the studied states, numerous stakeholders—state agencies, state legislators, philanthropists, local government, and/or state out-of-school time intermediaries (particularly the state afterschool network, or ASN)—held a preexisting interest in supporting summer learning or could be mobilized through visioning that connected summer learning to broader state priorities. Bringing these different groups together as coalitions allowed for information sharing, collaborative planning, and collective advocacy across organizations that, in several cases, directly influenced decisions to allocate state funding toward summer learning.

For example, during his tenure as head of the Oregon SEA, Director Colt Gill combined his belief in the importance of summer learning programs with his network of relationships across state government, particularly within the legislature, to generate ongoing support for summer programs. The governor’s office also got on board when Governor Tina Kotek named summer learning and enrichment as her top education priority for the 2024 and 2025 legislative sessions. This united commitment from state leaders, combined with an optimistic economic forecast, prompted the 2024 legislature to establish the Summer Learning Grant Program and allocate $30 million toward the first summer.

3. Ensure sufficient and sustainable funding.

Funding is the key lever states use to support summer programs and ensure long-term sustainability. States often braid funding sources together to fund summer programs. For example, Tennessee has used a combination of state funding and federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to support its summer program. States can also play an important role in helping summer program providers identify potential funding sources and meet different funding source requirements. 

While all states leveraged Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds for summer programs (including a required 1% state set-aside for summer programs), states now have an opportunity to embed summer programs in a consistent state funding source. In Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, and Vermont, Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) and ESSER federal recovery funds initiated or allowed the state to jump-start plans for summer program support. Because of the demand for these programs, state investments are continuing. For example, moving forward in Vermont, cannabis sales tax revenue will be used to support summer programs

To keep providers focused on providing enriching and enjoyable programming for students, states can take the lead in advocating for consistent state funding sources for providers and for the state infrastructure—such as staffing and expertise at the SEA—that help ensure high-quality, accessible summer programs for all students. 

4. Leverage the capacity and expertise of key partners to develop and support programs and providers.  

The limitations of SEA capacity make partnerships critical when implementing state initiatives to support summer learning. In several of the studied states, ASNs were key partners in implementing state grant programs because of their experience and long-standing relationships with providers. ASNs and other partners, such as philanthropic foundations and other nonprofits, were often tapped to develop and administer grant competitions, provide technical assistance, and manage data. 

To efficiently administer its out-of-school time grant, the Massachusetts SEA partnered with seven regional organizations (e.g., the Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs) to issue subgrants to local summer programs. These organizations’ established relationships with local providers allowed for clear, effective communication and took advantage of ready-made infrastructures for funding dissemination and peer-to-peer technical assistance. 

5. Ensure youth access to summer programs, particularly for priority groups.

Summer programs are effective only to the extent that youth actually attend and that programs reliably reach the students who most need them. Common approaches to expanding access to summer programs include explicitly prioritizing student groups in legislation and/or grant requirements, funding transportation or reducing fees, and supporting the grant application process for providers located in underserved communities (including by leveraging intermediary organizations for this purpose).

States can prioritize funding allocations for providers serving students from underrepresented or underserved populations or students with greater academic and enrichment needs. With its Building Opportunities in Out-of-School Time (BOOST) grant program, for example, Georgia prioritized increasing student access and reducing barriers to summer programs. BOOST grantees were required to use funds for at least one of the following three purposes: (1) expanding access to serve more youth, (2) reducing barriers to participation, and (3) increasing program quality and expanding or enhancing supports and services offered.

6. Support program quality.

As important as ensuring the availability of summer opportunities is ensuring that those programs are of high quality. Research points to instruction focused on building specific skills, well-qualified instructors, active learning opportunities, positive youth–instructor interactions, and a positive site climate as components of high-quality summer programs. States can foster high-quality summer programs through a variety of state mechanisms: legislative or grant requirements, guidance documents and technical assistance for programs, and data analysis and aligned professional learning opportunities. 

In Louisiana, for example, the SEA produced a well-received Summer Learning Program Guidance document that aimed to facilitate local education agencies’ (LEAs) development of high-quality summer programs. The document included recommendations on best practices and several template documents that LEAs could build from: for instance, sample schedules, a data collection plan, and a planning checklist and timeline to support planning for summer learning during the regular school year. LEAs with less capacity, expertise, and experience implementing summer programs particularly appreciated this state-issued guidance.

7. Collect data to show impact and promote continuous improvement. 

Data collection can be used both as a tool to demonstrate the value of summer programs to students and their communities and as a means for supporting the continuous improvement of programs and providers. 

States often use participation data to show impact and understand access, especially for underserved demographics. For example, to better understand the accessibility of its Summer Enrichment Internship Program, New Mexico tallied the total number of student interns and community mentors engaged in the program and also disaggregated intern participation across counties and tribes served.

In addition to participation and access, program quality data is often used to help states and programs understand whether and how well the program is meeting the state’s goals and purpose. These data can also be used to guide continuous improvement by identifying areas for professional learning or technical assistance. For example, Georgia surveys its BOOST-funded providers, asking whether they are incorporating elements from a list of specific indicators of program quality. Participant experience data—such as surveys of youth satisfaction or interviews about their experiences—can be used to tell stories about the value of these programs to students.