Interest in offering summer instruction and enrichment programming for greater numbers of students is building amid pressure for school systems to address students' learning loss and social-emotional health, said National Summer Learning Association CEO Aaron Dworkin.
And although there are logistical and funding hurdles to running summer programs during a pandemic, districts are getting creative by testing out unique strategies, forming new partnerships and applying lessons learned during the school year to make virtual and hybrid learning equitable and fun, Dworkin said.
"There are so many examples of what works that no one has to feel like they have to reinvent the wheel," he said.
For example, Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia expanded summer programming to all pre-K through 12th grade students last year — from an invitation-only summer program from previous years — and plans to do so again this year. School districts in Pennsylvania are partnering with Teachers in the Parks to offer hybrid learning and enrichment lessons this summer.
State leaders also are recognizing the urgent need for expanded learning opportunities outside the traditional school year. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom included $4.6 billion for summer learning in his proposed budget, and the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill requiring schools to offer after-school learning mini-camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps.
Additionally, several states are dedicating part of their Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds — provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act — to summer learning programs, according to a tracker from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
COVID-19’s toll on students has been harsh, and school systems are seeking solutions for learning loss. Since the beginning of the school year, districts are reporting lower attendance rates, increases in failing grades and concerns about students’ mental well-being.
An initial analysis of NWEA MAP Growth assessments in the fall showed students averaged between 5 and 10 percentile points lower in math performance compared to peers in the same grades in 2019. Additionally, students from families with low-incomes and those who are Black or Hispanic may have higher rates of learning losses, according to research from McKinsey & Company.
"Everybody is recognizing we have to leverage the summer months for lots of reasons, but especially in COVID," Dworkin said. "There's been a lot of missed learning opportunities and then the question is, 'How do you do it?'"
Here are a few key pieces of advice from educators and Dworkin for planning summer school programs:
Combine engaging academic content with SEL and PE
Summer learning programs shouldn’t be “drill and kill,” and courses shouldn’t just reiterate what students should have learned the previous school year, said Dworkin. While core subject review will be necessary for some students, the curriculum should include hands-on activities and real world application scenarios appropriate for different age groups, he said.
“The best practices are our programs that are trying to make summer feel a little different than regular school, and more special and kind of, you know, something that's not punitive,” Dworkin said.
Alexandria City Public Schools provided all pre-K through 5th grade students kits with supplies for the summer courses, said Gerald Mann, ACPS’ executive director of instructional support. There was also a wide variety of course options, including dual language courses and classes to prepare middle-schoolers for algebra.
Although the summer courses were virtual last year and combined synchronous and asynchronous programming, efforts were made to use project-based instructional strategies and provide opportunities for virtual field trips, Mann said. This was no easy feat, because the district decided in early April to open free summer programming for its 16,000 students on an opt-out basis, Mann said. Staff worked day and night to build the program, he said.
Additionally, the district also hired guidance counselors to provide SEL lessons and host office hours for students. “We had to actually ask for more seats in the person's webinar or their Zoom call, because that many students at the high school level wanted to come in to talk to the counselor,” Mann said.
Get parent buy-in and work with partners
One advantage to taking a year to plan for summer programming is that districts can build a marketing and communication plan. When ACPS offered summer learning for all students last year, the district had a very narrow window to not only create the curriculum but to explain the opt-out policy and registration process to parents, Mann said. The lessons learned from last summer have helped the district adjust practices as it ramps up for similar programming this year.
“Given that we went through it last year, I’m more comfortable,” Mann said. Still, he’s not yet sure if students will be able to be on campuses at all this summer.
Mann said working with partners inside and outside the district has been a critical part of developing the summer programming. Specifically, within the district he works with the human resources office to recruit teachers to lead summer classes, with facilities teams to plan for on-campus instruction and with the communications department to spread the message about the summer opportunities.
Teachers in the Parks, which was founded in 2004 by Matthew Hathaway, a 4th grade teacher in the Exeter Township School District in Reading, Pennsylvania, partners with multiple recreation departments, school districts, libraries and other summer camps to bring teachers to where students are so that teachers can provide small group instruction in person and virtually. For example, last summer, teachers met students at grab-and-go meal distribution sites.
“The worst thing we could do is try to compete,” Hathaway said. “The more you can coordinate with your community, the better.”
Dworkin said the pandemic has created more collaboration between school systems and out-of-school organizations. “It’s one of the silver linings at this time,” he said.
Build a long-term strategy
Although just planning one year at a time can seem overwhelming, considering long-term investments and strategies can make summer programming stronger, Dworkin said.
For one, it’s best if funding resources can be planned out in advance. Teachers in the Parks is supported through Title I funding, private fundraising and minimal fees based on family income, Hathaway said. Expenses stay low because the program doesn’t have costs for facilities or transportation since teachers travel to meet small groups of students or provide lessons online.
Mann, from ACPS, said last summer’s programming expenses of $500,000, which were directed mostly to salaries and supplies, was already dedicated in the district budget. The late push to expand the programming for all students, however, was helped financially by shifting unused funds from other budget areas. Stimulus funding for learning loss and grants also supported summer programming. Knowing that summer courses for pre-K through 12th grade will likely continue into the future, Mann was better able to plan for this year, he said.
“I think all of us know that once you did summer school for all, there's no going back,” Mann said.