The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

In 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins University drew an important conclusion after a quarter-century following rich and poor students in Baltimore from childhood to adulthood. The summer, they said, is a major reason students from low-income families are continually playing catch-up with their wealthier peers. Affluent children stay academically engaged during enriching summer camps, museum excursions and other travel experiences, not to mention more frequent library visits. Each fall they come back ahead of where they left off in the spring, while poor students tend to stay the same or fall behind.

Of course, summer isn’t the only source of the problem. From the time babies are born, there is a huge disparity in access to brain-building stimulation and activities. A study just released by Stanford University found that, by 2 years old, children from high-income families are six months ahead of their future classmates in language proficiency.

In neighborhoods plagued by violence, parents must make keeping their children safe their top priority; getting them ahead comes second.

By sixth grade, the disparities translate to an estimated 6,000-hour difference in learning opportunities. Six hours a day in school 180 days a year is nowhere close to an adequate solution.

But what is the answer to the opportunity gap? A year-round academic calendar in poor neighborhoods? A longer school day? More after-school and summer programs? Internships and apprenticeships?

Around the country, there have been many efforts to adopt all of the above. But we know that longer doesn’t always mean better. Quality is necessary as well. So what are the most effective ways for students to spend their “extended learning time”? How can community organizations help under-resourced schools and share responsibility with overworked educators? Is there such thing as too much time in school? And in hard budget times, where should extended learning fall in the long list of priorities?

During the next year, The Hechinger Report will embark on an in-depth exploration of this topic, sending reporters to cities around the country to explore what works, what doesn’t and what’s needed to provide equitable opportunities –– inside school and out. We’ll be producing stories in partnership with various media outlets as well as posting regular blog entries here, and we welcome the submission of opinion pieces. If you have suggestions, please join our discussion publicly, or email contributing editor Sara Neufeld at neufeld@hechingerreport.org.

We’ll see you after school.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Sara Neufeld is a contributing editor. She was first assigned to the education beat in 2000 while interning at the San Jose Mercury News; her editors figured she couldn't mess up too badly since it was...

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published.