For our youth, every school year brings renewal, a fresh start, a new opportunity.

But when our children don’t activate their brains all summer long, they often squander that fresh start.

In Minnesota, 219,277 students in kindergarten through 12th grade are responsible for taking care of themselves after school. During the summer, without the structure of school, those students are most at risk to suffer learning loss and regress – rather than grow – academically. After two summers, you’re talking about a one-year loss.

Add it up over multiple summers and eventually, the aggregate gap becomes insurmountable.

I remember a middle and high school classmate who was a good student- athlete. But his parents divorced, and they looked at teachers as enemies rather than partners. He didn’t have any desire to achieve academically, and he wasn’t going on any trips to museums or camps during the summer.

He went from an honor roll student to barely graduating high school.

When kids fall behind, the results can often lead to them not showing up, screwing up, giving up, or worst of all, dropping out.

What potential is squandered, when a child falls behind summer after summer then drops out?

My wife and I make sure our children participate in some sort of enrichment class every summer. My daughter did one this year called, “Not Quite Brain Surgery.” The whole premise of the class was to allow students to immerse themselves in how the brain works. She and a good friend took the class together.

It was incredible!

My daughter dissected a sheep brain and put together a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation on how the human brain works, including terminology that was even a stretch for me. So cool.

It takes a village, a community, and intentional, caring guardians who are going to focus on this critical period to ensure their student doesn’t fall back instead of move forward. Summer does not have to be void of academic growth or academic enrichment.

It can actually serve to turbo-charge that growth.

The YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities is proud to have completed its second year collaborating with the YMCA of the USA, St. Paul Public Schools and Maxfield Elementary School. During the summer, the Bell Power Scholars Academy offers a full-day schedule that focuses on math and literacy in the morning and fun, hands-on activities and experiences in the afternoon, including field trips and service projects.

I was delighted to see Maxfield Elementary principal Nancy Stachel say some students who participated in the Power Scholars summer program had three- or four-month gains when they returned for the school year.

That’s fantastic, and I want to clone the program and spread it more broadly.

But there are fundamental challenges to make programs like Power Scholars available to every child who needs it, limitations around staffing, around locations and, of course, funding.

Projections suggest that we’ll struggle to get enough skilled workers into the workforce for necessary jobs over the next couple of decades. So we need to figure out ways to expand access.

There are effective camps of all types, run by organizations, churches and nonprofits, to influence summer learning gains. Those gains don’t just happen in a traditional classroom setting.

But parents and guardians must be engaged, figuring out ways to make summer homework fun and providing rewards for completing workbooks or writing essays or reading books.

I was so encouraged to see the stories of Bronell and Victoria, two students at Maxfield Elementary. They represent exactly what the heart of the program is all about.

Their confidence will only grow. Then imagine the impact they can have on their own classmates, their own aspirations and eventually, their own children… Indeed, a positive and virtuous cycle.

We need to put these opportunities in front of kids, and then we’ll all be amazed by what they can achieve.