WASHINGTON — It's a disservice to students, especially those who are historically disadvantaged, to center summer programming on remediating skills not learned during the school year, said speakers at a National Summer Learning Association conference session Wednesday.
Rather, every day students spend in school over the summer months should include high quality instruction that engages students' and teachers' passions, aims for accelerating skills, and blends academics and enrichment, the speakers said.
"The problem with remediation, the problem with feeding kids junk food in their learning experience is that it keeps the rich richer and keeps the poor poorer, right?" said Nancy Gannon, senior advisor of teaching and learning and director of the District Summer Learning Network at fhi360, a nonprofit that supports locally driven solutions. "We take our young people who we have already identified as behind, and then we feed them crap, excuse my language."
The District Summer Learning Network, a program launched in January 2022 by fhi360 with support from The Wallace Foundation, provides technical assistance to schools designing summer offerings. The network is currently working with 110 districts, Gannon said.
Changing mindsets, funding systems and processes often involves a consistent series of small, intentional steps, said Sheila Smith-Anderson, a consultant at the District Summer Learning Network. "We got to work the work. We got to keep it before us. We got to keep uncovering, keep having those conversations, keep being brave."
Gannon said one of the most important takeaways is that educators and administrators should understand that all students are ready for real learning. "They're ready to engage, they're ready to think," she said.
At Wednesday's session, two district leaders shared how their school systems shifted away from a remediation mindset to one focused on equity, joy of learning and youth engagement:
Logan County Schools, West Virginia
Summer learning for middle and high school students in West Virginia's Logan County Schools used to focus almost entirely on credit and grade recovery. It was not purposeful or planned out, said Lisa Teeters, director of school improvement.
To revamp the summer programming, district staff met weekly throughout the last school year to work toward a full transformation by 2024. Leaders also sought out student input on what offerings would most appeal to youth.
Last summer, about 750 students participated in the rural district's summer learning programs. To disrupt the remedial mindset, the district adopted a new STEM-centered summer curriculum that moved learning outside of the classrooms and into a state park.
"They were still getting that STEM activity with English language arts," Teeters said. "They were crafting. They were drawing. They were scientists. They were exploring, but they did not even think about it because they were outside of the classroom in the park."
The district also encouraged summer instructors to lead classes that fit their passions, not just their certification areas. For example, one district pre-K teacher led middle and high school lessons in forensic science and blood analysis.
"We wanted that love for learning and that love for teaching to become part of our summer programs," Teeters said.
The district has been pleased with the outcomes of their early efforts. Last summer, 100% of K-4 students participating in pre-and post-summer learning assessments demonstrated accelerated learning in English language arts. About 70% of 5th-8th graders showed acceleration in math skills. And high school summer participants recouped more than 370 half course credits, Teeters said.
Rochester City School District, New York
To investigate reforms needed for summer learning in New York's Rochester City School District, leaders reviewed the finances and found that 90% of funding for summer school — or about $11 million — was being allocated for remediation. Further research found that 100% of students in grade 9-12 registered for summer classes after final exams were graded in the spring, leaving little time to plan for and incorporate enrichment classes in their summer plans.
Additionally, summer teachers had only six hours of professional development time to prepare for the courses and much of that training was spent on logistics, such as student arrivals and dismissals, said Dan Hurley, the district's executive director of school innovation.
In a district where Hurley said there is deep-rooted structural and institutional racism, leaders aimed to make changes. Part of that process was publicly discussing the summer programming deficits and then creating guiding principles for reform.
Last summer, when about 4,100 students attended summer learning, experiences differed from the past in that they aimed to spark students' curiosity, he said. For example, the district partnered with a large university where the district's 11th- and 12th-graders could participate in summer learning on that campus. The students thrived in the college environment, Hurley said.
The district also developed a teacher-of-color cohort for summer programming that shielded new teachers from being the first ones to be let go if the district had to downsize to adjust for enrollment.
Additionally, the district required that if field trips were planned, the first one would be to a science museum display explaining the history of racism in Rochester.
"We had a recovery mindset throughout and it continues to exist, and we're disrupting as we can," Hurley said.