As temperatures rise across California and the nation, so does the need for learning and physical activity for tens of thousands of children who lose academic ground and gain excess weight during the summer months. This phenomenon undoubtedly contributes to the 22 percent of California's high school freshmen who fail to graduate in four years -- and to the nearly 40 percent of our state's 18-to-24-year-olds who are overweight or obese.

The problem is particularly troubling for low-income youth, because research shows that as much as two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap is due to summer learning loss. Research also shows that for many children, half of the weight they gain during the entire year occurs over the summer months.

As a retired admiral and one of more than 450 retired military leaders with the nonpartisan, nonprofit Mission: Readiness, I see a direct link between these problems and our future national security. The Department of Defense estimates that more than 70 percent of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to serve in the military, primarily because they are too poorly educated, are too overweight or have a serious criminal record.

So how do we solve the problem? First, by recognizing that the U.S. public education system's six-hour day and 180-day school year do not provide significant time for teaching and learning the complex skills and knowledge students need to succeed. Second, by making learning more meaningful through tangible connections between academics and the world of work.


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The good news is that schools in the East Bay and around our state are finding innovative and effective ways to integrate more and better learning time into the regular school day and during the summer months as well.

With support from the California Center for College and Career, for example, students who attend the Dozier-Libbey Medical High School in Antioch participate in hands-on activities that prepare them for the medical profession. The school uses the Linked Learning approach that integrates academics, career education and work-based learning experiences. The school also pairs students with mentors and internships, and offers job-shadowing and service learning opportunities that exemplify connections between school and work.

It is a smart approach for equipping students for the workforce, because health care positions will account for more than 10,000 job openings between 2010 and 2020 in Alameda and Contra Costa counties alone.

It also helps students prepare for higher education, which 97 percent of students participating in Linked Learning pursue.

Another good example comes from the El Monte Collaborative for Academics, Recreation & Enrichment for Students (CARES) program in Concord, which serves 120 students who actively engage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-themed activities over the course of 19 days during the summer months. Among the variety of hands-on activities, students learn about heat-energy transfer by producing their own batches of ice cream and spend time engaged in nutrition education, gardening and cooking classes, learning first-hand how to eat healthy.

Participating students also spend 60 minutes engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day, so they have the opportunity to depart the program healthier than when they arrived.

Similarly, 670 elementary students who participate in the East Bay Asian Youth Center's (EBAYC) Camp Thrive spend four weeks of their summer participating in a variety of health and science-related activities. Their curriculum this year was focused on proper nutrition, hydration and the protection of natural resources.

They learned how to grow plants and clean up oil spills as well as designing windmills and earthquake-resistant buildings. Physical fitness activities were incorporated into the schedule each and every day. Camp Thrive culminates with a weeklong camping trip so that inner-city kids have the opportunity to explore and sleep out in nature.

Unfortunately, all of these innovative educational programs are at risk due to funding challenges. At the state level, important legislation such as the Expanded Learning Enhances Student Success bill (Senate Bill 1221) will improve and update California's primary resources for expanded learning programs. And under California's Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), school and community leaders have a unique opportunity to invest in summer and year-round learning innovations.

Supporting the legislation and making wise use of local resources will help prepare more students for high school graduation, higher education and challenging careers, including the military for those who choose to serve. A healthy and well-educated workforce is essential to our national security and the ability of our nation to compete in the world economy.

Jody A. Breckenridge is a retired vice admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard. She is a resident of Pleasant Hill.