As the school year ends and summer begins, many parents and teachers worry about the “summer slide.” The summer slide is the tendency for students to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year.

To combat this learning loss, many districts are focusing on providing additional summer learning opportunities for students.

How can we combat the summer slide? Are summer learning programs the answer? And how can we ensure all students have access to these programs?

In this episode, Aaron Dworkin joins Kevin to discuss whether summer learning programs can combat the summer slide.

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Meet Aaron

Aaron Dworkin is the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, which works to ensure all young people in America, especially the most vulnerable, can access and afford a high-quality summer learning experience every year.

Kevin: As the school year ends and summer begins, many parents and teachers worry about the summer slide. The summer slide is the tendency for students to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year. To combat this learning loss, many districts are focusing on providing additional opportunities for students to learn over the summer. How can we combat the summer slide? Are summer learning programs the answer? And how can we ensure that all students have access to these programs? This is “What I Want to Know.” And today I’m joined by Aaron Dworkin to find out.

Aaron Dworkin is the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, which works to ensure that all young people in America, especially the most vulnerable, can access and afford a high-quality summer learning experience every year. He joins us today to discuss if summer learning programs can combat the summer slide. Aaron, welcome to the show.

Aaron: It is an honor to be here.

Kevin: I tell you what, Aaron, I have checked you out. By the way, I don’t have your ATM number, but I have checked you out, and I know that you have had a passion for working on behalf of kids. So the first question that comes to mind, someone with your talent and skills, what drew you to this kind of work? Because it takes a special something to dedicate your life to working on behalf of kids.

Aaron: Well, again, thank you for the chance to be in conversation with you, Kevin. I’ll share two quick things on this. One is, as a little kid, I grew up in northern New Jersey, but I always say between seventh and tenth grade, for various reasons and life circumstances, I was in five schools in three years.

Kevin: Oh, wow.

Aaron: I was in a small little parochial religious school, and then I was in a bigger, you know, public school in my town. And then my parents split up, and I moved with my mother to Los Angeles. And then my parents got back together, and I came back to a school, I popped for a different high school. And then my brother and sister, one of them finished college, they had a few extra dollars, and they, for 10th grade through 12th grade, they threw me into the fanciest high school, private high school in the area.

Kevin: Oh, wow.

Aaron: And I had a front-row seat to what some kids have in education and what some kids don’t. And I saw all the opportunity gaps that we talk about. It was on full display. In some schools, I was the wealthiest kid. In some schools, I was the poorest kid. In some schools, I was the brightest kid. You know, in some schools, I was the most struggling. And I saw what resources people have to help them and what resources people don’t, right there.

And then, so a couple things happened. One, I got very good at making a lot of friends quickly. I got pretty good at playing basketball and being a point guard and passing the ball, so people would become my friend, which played out for me later on.

But when you see all the disparities, there they were. I showed up at this fancy private school, I did very well there. I was the only one who appreciated it. Everybody else had been there since kindergarten. They were sick of each other. They were sick . . . I’m like, “Do you guys know how nice this place is?” So all the teachers really liked me. So there was that. Right there I saw that.

The other thing was I grew up in a family that didn’t always have all the resources, but they always believed in kind of all the extracurricular activities. They spent whatever dollars they had, they put us in every program, signed us up for everything at the rec center, the Y, a camp, a good job, and they made sure that me and my brother and sister had all those opportunities. And so when I finished college and moved to New York City as a single guy, this idea of giving young people opportunities so they have options, and not just giving kids chances, but giving kids choices, that was something I benefited from and that was something I felt I was in a position to try and offer to others.

Kevin: Aaron, that’s fascinating. And I think your perspective is so important because so many people, through no fault of their own, just based on background, demographics, parentage, what have you, are in their own bubble and they don’t have that varied perspective. But to hear you talk about the fact that you saw it all, you identify with different subgroups or categories of kids, it rounded out your perspective in a unique way. And it’s also telling that after having that experience, you found it important to dedicate your life’s work to helping kids.

You know, you mentioned basketball. You know, we’ve talked about it, and I was an athlete. By the way, I was a shooting guard, so I wasn’t passing, you know, just so we’re very clear.

Aaron: I would have loved to be on your team, man. I would have given it to you every second. That would have been great.

Kevin: I was not passing the ball, so, you know, I’m not as altruistic as you by nature. But basketball also led you, along with this commitment to help kids, to doing more work hands-on to help kids outside of the school day. So talk about that and that experience in New York.

Aaron: Sure. So after college, I moved to New York City. I was in a leadership program, and then I worked at Moody’s Investor Service. I was a bond analyst. But I was volunteering because I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids. So I started volunteering with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. And I would hang out with a great kid who was 14, and we’d go once every weekend, go do some fun activities. And there was a woman running the mentoring program, and I would check in with her. And she said, “Do you know any other guys? I have a huge waiting list of teenage boys looking to hang out with older male role models, and I cannot find any men. I have a million women who want to volunteer, but these teenage boys want to hang out with older guys.”

And meanwhile, because I was always into basketball, I would play twice a week after work in all these gyms and leagues around New York City. Hundreds of men, mostly men of color, all college educated, great jobs, but they all thought they were too busy to volunteer with kids, but they all made plenty of time at 7:00 on Tuesday to play basketball. So, as I say, it didn’t take a rocket scientist. I was like, “I can help you.”

And then I’ll just tell you something funny, Kevin, because you’re a big basketball fan. Bill Bradley, when he ran for president, who was the senator from New Jersey, but he had played for the Knicks and was a Rhodes Scholar, when he was running for president, he came out with like a coffee table book called “Values of the Game,” life and leadership lessons I could learn from basketball.

And I was so into basketball that I bought that book. And once I read that, I was like, “This should be a curriculum for a basketball camp.” And so from that, using that leadership curriculum, trying to help Big Brothers, Big Sisters, I created with some friends the Hoops and Leaders Basketball Camp, where for eight nights and two weeks in the New York City Parks Department gave us the Rec Center in the West Village, and I got 100 teenage boys, and I got 100 men in their 20s and 30s. And the camp ran from 5:00 at night to 9:00 at night, because it had to happen after work.

And it was for the last two weeks of the summer, and every night had a leadership theme. And there was a leadership theme basketball practice. And then the guys would come after work and put on uniforms, and they have dinner, and we have speakers, and teams, and ref, and all the dinner, and they talk about jobs. And what was funny was the NBA always wanted to send me speakers every night who were players. I said, “No one at this camp is that good at basketball. No one is going to be a player. Send me a team doctor, a ref, a broadcaster.”

Anyway, at the end of those two weeks, we would match everyone up and funnel them back into Big Brothers, Big Sisters, this group from Brooklyn, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. And then years later, I became a program director and then national president of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charity called the After-School All-Stars. And I was able to bring that program with me to that national group, and this camp ran in 10 cities. And in every city, the local NBA team would pay for the camp. And in Miami, instead of playing at the Rec Center, the kids were playing in the Miami Heat Arena, and same with the Bulls and Dallas Mavericks. It became a whole thing. So, anyway, that got me into this line of work.

Kevin: You know, it’s interesting. It’s just an aside, and I do want to get into NSLA and the work you’re doing this summer, National Summer Learning Association. But you mentioned Bill Bradley, a terrific guy. When he ran for president, me and another member on the city council were his D.C. folks, so we had a fundraiser for him with Cory Booker and others where we sponsored that book. We gave that book away.

Aaron: Oh, so you’re familiar. You know.

Kevin: I know that real well. It’s so interesting that the work you’ve done, you sort of match resources with needs that should be obvious. But in many communities, what those young men who are playing basketball with you said to you is a common refrain, that, “I don’t have the time. It’s too hard. I don’t know how to do it.” But I always tell people a little bit goes a long way. And oftentimes, once you get people started, it becomes positively infectious. And your work, engaging mentors for young people working in these programs, even your current job, don’t you find that you just have to start?

Aaron: A hundred percent. First of all, that camp, which everybody thought was about kids, was equally impactful and as important to the mentors as it was to the kids. I don’t want to make it . . . I’ll come back to your question real fast. But I just want to say the first camp I ran in New York City was August 2001, three, four weeks before 9/11. And then 9/11 happens. And all these mentors reached out to me and said, “Everyone is taking stock of their life.” And they’re like, “This two-week thing we just did was one of the most important things I ever did. How could I be helpful?” And I would get $25,000 in scrunched-up checks sent to me in an envelope from all these banker guys or whatever. Anyway, you never know the impact you’re going to have. And everyone thinks they’re helping kids, but obviously, when you give to help others, it helps you even more.

I would just say this. You know, Michelle Obama always used to say when she would talk about getting kids to eat, you know, vegetables and run around, it was like, you know, make the right choice the easy choice. And you’ve got to like align with people’s incentives. You go where they are. Don’t make it too hard. And, right, do you want to play basketball? Yeah. Do you mind playing with a 14-year-old? Sure. Do you mind talking to them about your job and your college? Okay. You’ve got to have dinner anyway. So it’s like you’ve got to make it fun and make it not too difficult.

To your point, I think that we are blessed in this country to have so many resources and so many organizations and so many millions of great people who want to help kids, and they don’t always connect. And their lives could be made much easier if they would be coordinated. And so you and I have a luxury of having a perspective of knowing what people are doing. And so I’ve always been kind of this creative matchmaker trying to bring more resources to kids.

Kevin: To that point, let’s talk about the National Summer Learning Association. First of all, talk a little bit about your work. And it’s so clear it’s needed. COVID led to a spotlight on the learning gaps that exist in schools. But you and I both know that those learning gaps existed well before COVID, but now there’s more attention to it. And people talk about this summer slide. But the reality is for many kids in American schools, those deficits exist throughout the year. I have found, though, and seen that if a kid is in a robust summer learning program, they can not only make up for some of the gaps that exist just because of the summer slide, if you will, but also it can help them establish solid footing going to the next year.

Aaron: Absolutely. So, yes, so I’m currently, and have been for five years now during this COVID period, the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, which is a mouthful, so we call ourselves NSLA, just to abbreviate that. But the group has been around, we just celebrated our 30th anniversary. So it was started by professors at Johns Hopkins University. If you heard the phrase, as you’ve mentioned, “summer slide,” “summer learning loss,” that comes out of research done by our organization, by these professors who tracked thousands of students in Baltimore for many years and could see that if you were higher income, you had great opportunities in the summer.

We educate everyone during the school year, but then the summer we stop. And if you have resources and you’re fortunate enough to be near programs and family can afford programs, you go and you keep learning in different ways and growing and that’s great and you’re ready for school in September. And then for millions of kids, you know, they don’t have that and they fall behind.

So this has been very well known, but it’s always been a niche issue in education. And then COVID happened and everyone got stuck at home. And even I sometimes say for more affluent families, it was like this empathetic aha moment for summer learning because they’re like they’re working. They have some money, but they can’t . . . They got their kids at home. Everyone is like struggling. And I had a lot of people say to me, “Is this what happens for low-income families in the South?” I’m like, “Yes.” You can hardly do it. Can you imagine you’re working, your kids don’t have programs? What are you going to do? So there’s that.

And then it became identified. As I say, it moved from a niche issue to a national priority of our country to help all kids catch up. So, Kevin, if you just allow me for 30 more seconds, I’ll just share because it was so funny. I mean, none of it was funny, but it was like interesting that America shut down in March 2020. Really, that was when we were like, “Okay, everybody, everybody stay home.” So, initially, I don’t know what you call this, a conventional wisdom, thought COVID might be a few weeks, might only be a few months. So at the very least they said, “All right. Well, if kids were missing the last from March to June,” that’s about three months, “who has research on what happens to kids when they’re out of school for three months?”

Well, that was our organization. We conduct research on that and all the negative effects. And then they said, “Well, now every kid in America is going to go have to be in a summer program to catch up. Who has expertise and research and best practices and knowledge on what makes for a good summer program?” That was also our organization. So every single leader in education from a local school and a local nonprofit to the U.S. Department of Education to the White House, our phone did not stop ringing for, like, two years.

Kevin: Wow.

Aaron: And we didn’t want to say . . .  It was a crisis for the world, but it was a crisis for kids. And we didn’t want to say no. And we’ve been trying to help everybody we can, and we’ve grown. And Joe Biden mentioned summer learning as a priority in his state of the union a couple months ago. And Secretary Cardona has come to our conference every year for the last three years. And our conference used to be 400 people. Last year it was 1500 people. And they say with all the American Rescue Plan funding, which we could talk about, that came out, there was up to $30 billion that could be used on after-school and summer programs if you chose. And there’s research that shows now that for school districts, summer learning was one of their top recovery strategies.

So we’ve been trying to work with everybody we can to help everybody reach as many kids. But we have a primary focus on low-income kids, kids who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, almost 30 million students. Those are the ones that we want to make sure have these great programs and opportunities, and that’s who we focus on.

Kevin: So, Aaron, what makes for a good summer learning program?

Aaron: A lot of different components, but we know what works. We give out national awards. I would direct anyone to our website and look up our New York Life Award winners. We have almost 80 of them. And they’re all different.

But step one. So first of all, to define summer learning. And the quickest way I would say, Kevin, it’s if you take the best of the academic goals of summer school, so math, reading, STEM, and combine it with the best of the community building, leadership, team building, hands-on learning of summer camp. So if summer camp and summer school had a baby, you end up with summer learning. And that is really important because it can’t just be one or the other. It can’t just be certain kids get to go learn to play tennis and go hiking and learn a new language and take trips and do all these, you know, new skills while some kids just have to do math and reading all day, but don’t get to have fun or have more fun with these enrichment activities. And by the way, if you’re doing all these things in nature, you should also be reading and learning math and science. So how do we get people to combine?

I think two other things that are interesting is all these programs, and I’ve seen programs built around debate and being a lawyer. The New York Times is running a summer program right now, Kevin, called The School of the New York Times, where families paid $6,000 to send their kids, eighth graders to go live in NYU dorms and job shadow reporters and learn how to be a journalist. And you’re the food critic or the sports. I mean, medical schools are running.

So there’s a couple things. It’s to, one, change people’s ideas about traditional summer school. Historically, summer school was considered a punishment. It was remedial. If I told you or your kids or anyone I knew you had to go to summer school, everyone would say, “No.” Teachers don’t want to work in it. Kids don’t want to go. Parents don’t want it. Nobody was excited about that.

So we had a whole, like, reimagined summer school and summer learning. The thing that I would say is learning can take place in any setting, so it doesn’t have to only be in the school building. So I think what’s fun about our summer program is if you look in Boston, they’ve got certified science teachers running programs for kids at the science museum and they’re getting school credit.

You could do, you know, all these different things, like I was talking about the hospital programs, and NIH is running a program for high school teenagers to learn how to be doctors. I mean, it’s amazing what people are doing. But the real, the real, besides the combination of academics and enrichment and real world and giving students a voice and a choice of what they want to learn and empower them to lead, is about relationship building.

Kevin: Yeah.

Aaron: And at the end of the day, the common trait that every one of our national award-winning programs that get all these great results, whether it was the Math Corps program in Detroit or Teachers in the Parks in Redding, Pennsylvania, where teachers sit on blankets under trees, it’s that everyone feels seen, heard, and there’s a sense of community where everybody cares about each other and everybody wants to come back every day. And that, I don’t care if you do it through hip-hop dance. I don’t care what your angle is, what your focus is, that is what makes people want to come back. That’s what makes people want to work in the program. It makes people want to fund the program and ultimately get results, academic results, attendance, mental health support results. And I’ve just seen in all formats.

Kevin: What’s interesting, Aaron, is that, you know, because of COVID, it shined a light on, as I said earlier, and we talked about the learning gaps that are there. Even, you know, well-to-do families saw, got to look under the camel’s tent and see what was going on in America’s classrooms. But it also shined a light on some of the mental health challenges that these kids have. And there’s a recurrent sort of theme I’m hearing from teachers and forward-thinking educators, sociologists, psychologists. And you said it, this idea of being seen and heard. For many of our young people, Generation Z-ers, COVID was devastating and many wanted to, you know, curl up in a shell.

Aaron: Yeah, yeah. Suicide rates among teenage girls jumped 50%.

Kevin: It’s crazy. But this idea of relationship building and being seen and heard. What’s interesting, the reason why I’m calling this out, Aaron, is that, and you and I have been in this for a long time. Five, 10 years ago, you wouldn’t lead with describing a great summer program as a relationship building. You’d be talking about . . . Most folks would be talking about the academics. You’ve got to pick up what you lost, blah, blah, blah. But I am glad to see that more and more people understand that what we erroneously call soft skills are the real skills.

Aaron: Yeah. Kevin, can I even ask? I’ll even add further. I mean, I would get the question all the time from people saying, “I’m trying to set up the summer program.” We have a great guide and training staff that go around and work and help people do these things. And people would say to us, “What do I need to focus on more? Math and reading or mental health and social, emotional?” I’m like, “This is a false choice. It’s all of it. Both.” Think about your own kid. What do you want your kid to, math or . . . You need everything. But here’s what’s interesting, people are not good at everything, which is why you need partnerships.

The other theme and thread, and you know this better than anyone, is about creative partnerships. And so there are people who are great at supporting mental health. I was just with The Jed Foundation. They are the leading suicide prevention curriculum organization. We’re working with them to help get their resources. But, you know, there’s great groups who know how to teach math and reading and you all do that. So how do you connect them together and combine these and braid these resources and get these partners together? I’ll just say, I think on the emotional part, and by the way, the staff, we have a lot of young staff, they were also suffering.

Kevin: That’s right.

Aaron: I’m on the national board of the American Camp Association. That first summer, 2021, coming back, the college counselors, the colleges, they needed as much help if not more than the campers and the young students. And so everybody was in a bad place from isolation. People lost their patience with one another. I talked to a million camp directors. They were like, “If your kid got into what used to be a small thing that you’d be able to resolve in 10 seconds, it blew up to a 10.” Everything was like it took a lot. We’re still adjusting, we’re still suffering.

I’d like to just share real fast, though, the way we think about the why. Why summer? For anybody listening who’s an education leader or a parent, and we have other resources for everybody, but the thing that I think is interesting, we call them the four I’s, and I’ll go quickly. The four I’s of summer, which is like the why. Simon Sinek always says start with the why. So let’s just like take a step back.

Why do summer programs matter and why are they a good investment for all of us in our country? One, it’s this time for improvement, but not just only for the students. All summer programs, great summer programs, double up as staff training. So when I was national program director of After-School All-Stars, 90,000 kids, and every time we’d come out with a new curriculum, if I wanted everyone to know how to use it during the school year, we created a summer program that the whole curriculum on steroids and all the staff would get it and bought in and see it. And so when you frame it that way, there are a lot of summer programs that are new teacher pipeline programs. Breakthrough Collaborative is one of the largest teacher prep programs there is, but it’s a free middle school summer program for three years. But they will tell you that they are training new teachers. So it’s good for everybody, right?

The second is about innovation, which, Kevin, I know you care about. We think summer is the R&D time, the research and development time for the education field. If you have a new idea and a great new curriculum or a new tool that you want to try out, before you scale it, work it out, test it out, make sure it works. And so you see a lot. KIPP Charter School started out as a six-week summer program. I could just give you example after example. We think of it as one of the most unequal times, but one of the most entrepreneurial times. And I know you’re a very entrepreneurial educator. But I think if you’re someone who’s entrepreneurial and cares about education, you want to work in the summer because there are less barriers to entry and you can get these things.

But the last two that we’ve just touched on already is about interconnectedness. And, you know, in education, everybody wants to work together, but once the school year starts, everyone’s too busy. The train has left the station. Nobody’s got time. But in the summer, you’ve got some time to plan, and you can actually execute and implement these partnerships. And if they go well, they carry on to the school year.

And the last I is about impact, which we know at the policy level, the program level, but most importantly at the personal level. And I don’t know, Kevin, I’d be interested in you. Did you have a summer program that had an impact on you or not? Or did your kids participate in one?

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. My kids did and I did as well. I found it very important and meaningful and loved every minute of it. In fact, during college, I worked with Indianapolis Parks and Rec and ran a summer program.

Aaron: There you go.

Kevin: So, Aaron, I have one last question. And I must say I’m just so glad you’re doing the work you’re doing and the organization is doing the work that it’s doing. But we do have a good number of parents that were listening. And this is what I really want to know. What advice would you give to parents who some have summer programs affiliated with their child’s school, but some may be looking for the right program for their child? How do they start?

Aaron: Sure. So first I want to direct them to go to a website that we’ve created called It has almost 60,000 program options. They should type in their city or their ZIP Code, and all these different program options, affordable program options near them should pop up. And they can . . .

Kevin: What’s that site again? Say it one more time.

Aaron: A lot of different options. There’s Find a Camp, Find a Mentor, YMCA. I think what’s also exciting to know is schools are offering programs, but there are so many community partner groups, like I’ve mentioned, that are running programs.

And I think what you have to really do is know your kid. What are they passionate about? Here’s a chance for them to learn something, not only to catch up on maybe something they struggle with or miss, but what are they passionate about? Are they passionate about cooking? Because by the way, as you know, we could teach math through cooking, right? You’ve got measurements. Are they interested in music? I was just with somebody, they’re sending their kid into a camp. There’s a recording studio camp for his kid.

So it depends how old your kid is, first of all. If they’re kindergarten, first, second, elementary school, you tend to go to a program that’s within the radius of where you live. And then libraries are running programs, all those community groups. As you get older, you could go a little further away. It could be a program out in nature, college campus, high school. And then as youth become high school students, summer learning turns into summer jobs and summer internships, summer youth employment. And there’s a big move to get school credit, teach entrepreneurship, get school credit for academic credit, plus get paid, you know, plus learn about careers and passions. Trade unions are running summer camps for kids to learn skills, electrician unions. So there’s a lot of different allies and partners working in summer programming that don’t actually work with kids during the school year.

So for parents, again, understand what’s near you locally. Usually, there’s a mayor’s office, there’s a department of youth and community development, people who have more resources. We do the best. If you contact our group,, we can connect you to people that we know. We have a network of almost 25,000 partners, school districts, nonprofits, youth-serving government agencies, corporate partners.

There’s also a lot of online tools, Kevin, as you know, and Stride knows and others, that have great resources, apps, games, videos. So if you really can’t get anywhere, you know, there is stuff to do that I think is hands-on and interactive, The Achievery, that AT&T. There’s a lot of different free resources. I cite that one. But depending on what you’re interested in, there are groups and there’s curriculum, and we could help you vet and tell you what’s good options.

Kevin: Summer learning can be fun. Aaron Dworkin, thank you so much. We appreciate you joining us. And good luck to you and your team. And again, thanks for being on “What I Want to Know.”

Aaron: Thank you for having us. Appreciate it.

Kevin: Thanks for listening to “What I Want to Know.” Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That’s #WIWTK.

For more information on Stride and online education, visit I’m your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining “What I Want to Know.”

About the Show

Education is undergoing a dramatic shift, creating an opportunity to transform how we serve learners of all ages. Kevin P. Chavous turns to innovators across education, workforce development, and more to ask: “How can we do better?”

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