It’s never too early to start thinking about summer programs for students. As educators and education advocates know, there are key distinguishing factors for high-quality summer programs—which include safe environments, mindful approaches, inclusive learning opportunities, and meaningful engagement.

However, these factors also highlight an important evolution in our field: that in order to really address the issue of equity, we need to expand the conversation about summer learning. We need to broaden our focus from merely closing the academic achievement gap to mapping out the whole summer experience: closing opportunity gaps, increasing children’s food security, and strengthening social and emotional learning (SEL). Keeping these factors in mind, consider three winning strategies that will help school administrators and educators design engaging and meaningful experiences for their students every summer.

1. Closing Opportunity Gaps

Research shows that while all kids lose some math skills during summer months, children from low-income backgrounds lose reading skills as well, further compounding their academic achievement gap. When you look a little deeper, you realize that while summer can exacerbate the achievement gap, opportunity gaps often manifest at birth. Summer should be approached as a great time to shrink some of these gaps. It’s a time for children to experience new adventures and learn on their own terms.

A wonderful example of accomplishing the magical combination of inclusive and innovative learning is the Summer STEAM Institute, powered by the South Carolina nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds. This program won the 2016 New York Life Foundation Excellence in Summer Learning Award from the National Summer Learning Association for its novel and effective approach to summer learning.

The Summer STEAM Institute began with the goal of bringing together children from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds and zip codes to experience creative learning and prevent summer learning loss. Artists teach math and science concepts through theater and music, and the school district provides the location and free summer breakfasts and lunches. Their motto is: Kids should be having so much fun they don’t even know they are learning. That “special sauce” keeps summer program attendance up and behavior problems down.

In 2014, the program launched with one location and 52 students, 30 of whom were there through a scholarship. Today, the program has five locations, hundreds of students, and a waiting list. A survey of elementary and middle level students who participated in the program found that 80 percent of them said the program helped them learn new things and improve their math skills. An incredible 91 percent of students felt their science skills had improved.

New research from The Wallace Foundation reinforces the survey’s findings on a larger scale. The Foundation’s largest-ever study of summer learning found that students with higher attendance in free, voluntary summer learning programs experienced meaningful benefits in math and reading. It’s a testament to what can be achieved when we integrate creative learning methods into summer programs and make these programs more accessible and affordable. The Wallace Foundation also provides resources for educators to use to successfully start and manage similar programs in their schools and communities. The Wallace Foundation’s Summer Learning Toolkit provides resources for school districts to develop high-quality summer learning programs in their schools, and the foundation’s Summer Recruitment Guide offers suggestions and approaches for school administrators to build enrollment for summer learning programs. Both resources are available on The Wallace Foundation’s website.

2. Increasing Food Security

The ugly truth about summer is that one of our country’s most bountiful seasons can also be the time when many children go hungry. A summer nutrition status report by the Food Research & Action Center found that in July 2017, summer nutrition programs reached only 1 in 7 children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch at school during the 2016–17 school year. In a nation as rich as ours, it’s unconscionable that any child goes hungry.

Schools already help nourish 30 million students throughout the year, and some school systems are exploring innovative options to reach children during the summer. Ideas include deploying food trucks in New York City or partnering with community gardens in Texas to give children access to fresh produce. Schools and their partners play a vital role as summer food-​service sponsors and operating sites, but access remains a persistent challenge.

Bipartisan federal legislation has been introduced to contribute new funding to address this issue. The Summer Meals and Learning Act of 2019 proposes creating a federal grant program that will keep open the libraries of schools that offer free summer meals, so children can learn in a safe environment and be fed all summer long.

But we don’t have to wait until this legislation passes to support our children. The summer meal partnership between the Chicago Public Library and the Greater Chicago Food Depository is a great example of the power of collaboration to fight food insecurity among children. Lunches are delivered to libraries by Greater Chicago Food Depository staff and distributed in parking lots or inside the branch libraries. This partnership began in 2012 with the goal of reaching children across Chicago. From one branch of the library, the partnership has grown to provide summer meals at more than 25 branches. During the summer of 2019, more than 25,000 meals were served to children in libraries. School administrators should consider such partnerships as they continue to think of ways to nurture and nourish children over the summer. Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices is a great resource for finding information, funding, and best practices around establishing and managing summer meal sites.

3. Strengthening SEL

SEL—it’s an acronym we’re becoming more familiar with as study after study shows the importance of developing social and emotional learning skills in children. SEL helps students adapt to change, navigate challenging situations, and build leadership qualities. They are skills that will not only help students succeed in school but also in their lives and careers.

We know that it can be challenging to prioritize SEL skills in addition to a full academic curriculum each semester. But there is increasing interest among the education community to develop these skills in students and integrate them into summer programming. A Wallace Foundation report on the Every Student Succeeds Act established that summer programs provide children with the mental, physical, and emotional skills they need to succeed in life. The report found that many types of summer programs were effective, and that practitioners could replicate their components to improve youth outcomes.

One example of a summer program using an innovative approach to improve SEL skills is the award-​winning DREAM youth development organization, which leads the way in annually serving more than 2,500 youths in Harlem and the Bronx, NY, and Newark, NJ. The 27-year-old organization uses the power of teams to teach and inspire youths in reaching their potential and achieving their dreams.

The DREAM after-school and summer programs weave a number of components together to create a comprehensive experience that improves reading skills and strengthens social and emotional competencies such as goal setting, self-confidence, persistence, self-​advocacy, and leadership. The program engages children by making learning fun for them. Children are split into teams and spend the afternoons learning and playing T-ball, baseball, and softball. Experienced DREAM coaches lead these activities, which are designed to help children develop team-building, listening, and other social skills while promoting mental and physical health.

DREAM’s longest-running program, REAL Kids, has helped 99 percent of its participants maintain or improve their literacy levels during the free six-week program.

With early and intentional planning, implementing inclusive, high-quality summer programming is achievable for all. As part of our mission of increasing access to high-quality summer learning opportunities, the National Summer Learning Association launched the New Vision for Summer School Network (NVSS). It provides ongoing opportunities for school districts across the country to connect and learn from each other about how to make summer learning fun and productive. The network is organized around core principles such as encouraging recruitment strategies that make summer learning more inclusive, partnering with community enrichment providers, and embedding summer planning into the school year.

The National Summer Learning Association has a mantra: “Summer starts in September.” We believe that the process of planning, delivering, and improving summer learning programs should be incorporated into a school district’s strategic plan and intentional about the cycle for continuous improvement. So, just as the summer program ends, planning for the next year should begin. But no matter when you start planning, consider the many facets of summer learning as you conceive programming for the following summer. It’s important to move our concept of summer beyond remediation and test preparation. We must expand the traditional notion of summer school into one where community collaboration and creativity in planning allow us to deliver enriching experiences that help all children grow during the critical summer months.

When we keep equity as our North Star and innovation as our foundation, we are all well poised to give children the summer learning experiences they need to close those opportunity gaps and thrive.

Aaron Philip Dworkin is the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore. Marlyn Torres is a senior program officer at the New York Life Foundation in New York City.