Summer learning programs remain robust heading into the fourth summer after the pandemic began, as they continue to be bolstered by federal COVID-19 emergency funds and heightened attention to academic recovery and mental well-being.
Some education leaders, however, are anticipating fewer offerings in future years or a need for alternative funding sources as spending deadlines near for the last of the COVID federal allocations.
To be clear, a slowdown in summer planning hasn't occurred yet, according to Aaron Dworkin, CEO of National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit that supports summer programming for children. In fact, he said, local partnerships districts have created in the last few years to offer summer programs, and technical assistance provided by state and national entities to help with planning, are still going strong.
Districts are also starting to plan for their summer programming earlier in the preceding school year, he said. "The word is out that this is a wise strategy and investment that people should be focusing on," Dworkin said.
He said that while there are real concerns about the winding down of federal relief funds, there's acknowledgment of the benefits summer programs provide to students. "I think more and more districts and states see this wasn't just something good to do in a crisis — this makes sense," Dworkin said. "We should be investing in kids all year round in different ways."
Spending on summer
Research into spending plans for ESSER III, also known as the American Rescue Plan, shows hardy summertime investments, according to data services firm Burbio. Of 6,500 district spending plans totaling about $92 billion in ESSER III spending that the firm has analyzed, more than 4,000 districts have dedicated some $6.5 billion for summer, after-school and extended day activities. Total ESSER III funding is $121.9 billion.
Academic-focused ESSER III spending in general has "really kicked into gear," said Burbio Co-Founder Dennis Roche, who shared the data with K-12 Dive. Academic learning loss and intervention is the largest ESSER III spending category, according to a recent Burbio analysis.
"I think more and more districts and states see this wasn't just something good to do in a crisis — this makes sense. We should be investing in kids all year round in different ways."
CEO of National Summer Learning Association
The influx of federal COVID relief money has allowed districts to expand and refine summer offerings. During a NSLA conference last October, several district leaders spoke about how their schools shifted away from a remedial approach to enriching and academic-based offerings that are appealing to students.
Research has highlighted benefits to school-based programs held over the summer months. Summer math learning programs, for instance, can effectively mitigate pandemic-related learning losses disproportionately experienced by low-income pre-K-12 students, according to a 2022 meta analysis by the American Educational Research Association.
Planning for 2023
Some localities, however, are planning to pull back on the robust summer offerings they provided over the past few years. According to a survey released last fall by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, 57% of superintendents reported they will decrease or end summer learning and enrichment offerings currently being offered to students by September 2024, the current obligation deadline for ESSER III.
Cincinnati Public Schools is trimming its 2023 summer programming due to a decline in dedicated ESSER appropriations, said Kathryn Robinson, media relations associate for the district, in an email.
Not all schools will host the Ohio district's Summer Scholars programs like in recent years, and the program is only open to students in grades 2-12. Students in grades 2-3 are eligible for the 3 ½ week program by invitation, all students in grades 4-8 are eligible, and students in need of credit recovery in grades 9-12 are eligible.
High schoolers who are eligible can attend summer classes virtually or in person. All students with disabilities can participate in summer offerings.
In total, the district expects to serve around 5,000 to 7,000 students this summer. The final budget for Summer Scholars 2023 will be determined in May once overall enrollment and vendor management is set, Robinson said. The district partners with local agencies and organizations for enrichment opportunities for students during Summer Scholars.
"Not only is Summer Scholars an opportunity to make sure our students are on track for promotion and graduation, but we are also exposing students to engaging enrichment programming through fun, project based learning in STEM, ELA, Arts and Music and recreational activities," said CPS Superintendent and CEO Iranetta Rayborn Wright, in an email.
The importance of partnerships
The partnerships school systems form with organizations and local agencies can be vital to the continuation of summer offerings, Dworkin said, especially as localities aim to sustain or expand programs.
National and state collaborations can also propel summertime planning, training and information sharing. Dworkin said NSLA had one professional summer learning community three years ago and now has 12, with each community focused on different aspects of summer offerings such as programs operating in libraries or in public housing buildings.
"It's an opportunity that we've been trying to seize, so we've been working everywhere and anywhere we can to get more kids into better quality programs," Dworkin said. "And it's not schools alone who will do this work."
Change Summer is a nonprofit organization that partners with charter school management organizations to provide overnight camp experiences for underserved students ages 7-14. This summer, two 2-week sessions will serve about 3,000 students, said Founder and CEO Josh Phillips.
"Our mission really is to increase the confidence, curiosity, independence and responsibility of our campers," Phillips said.
The camps are held on college campuses and filled with arts, dance, athletics, nature and more — but the intent is to give students new experiences and show them what living on a college campus is like, Phillips said.
Participating schools typically pay about 75% of the cost, and Change Summer, through donations, covers 20%. The remaining 5% is paid by families, Phillips said.
Longitudinal data from when the camp began in 2016 shows participating students had higher SAT scores and college-going rates compared to noncampers from similar underserved populations, Phillips said. School attendance rates have also been higher for Change Summer campers, he said.
Phillips said schools are still participating at the same level as in 2022, but he's uncertain if there will be a drop-off in future years as ESSER funds dissipate.
"Unfortunately, what tends to happen historically is the enrichment things and summer related things, extracurriculars tend to go a little bit by the wayside, so we're hopeful that that's not the case," Phillips said.
"As long as you have a really good product and you're showing you're getting really good output and the data looks strong, then I think schools and school partners, school districts are willing to figure out a way to continue to make it happen as long as it's helpful to their students.”