The weather may be warming up, but this year more than ever, “school’s out for summer” won’t be true for thousands of students across the country.
After more than a year of teaching under quarantine, school districts have big plans for summer learning. It’s a time to bring kids back together in person, try to address at least some academic stagnation due to COVID-19, and maybe most importantly, have fun. Thanks to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and its $6.1 billion allocated specifically to address learning loss, district leaders are coming up with programs that far exceed the dull image of traditional summer schooling.
“Many districts, for the first time in the history of their summer programming, are focused on fun and engagement as a number one priority,” says Jessica Gunderson, a senior policy advisor with the Partnership for Children and Youth, based in California.
In San Diego, that means offering activities that look a lot more like summer camp than school. Last month, San Diego Unified began accepting applications from community partners to distribute $5 million for programs that give kids a chance to learn in small groups throughout the city. After a morning of project-based activities at school (think: using geocaching to design a scavenger hunt for the San Diego Zoo), kids might head off to the beach for surf lessons or learn songwriting with local musicians.
It’s the first time in decades the district has offered summer programming for students of all grade levels. But just because these activities are fun, doesn’t mean they’re not serious. Academic performance has fallen for some students, and high schoolers who were failing one or two classes before are now more likely to be failing multiple ones, says Richard Barrera, president of the district’s school board. Enriching summer learning could help.
“If we can help our students get back to feeling good about themselves, feeling good about school, good about learning, that will probably be the most important support that we can create for them in order to accelerate their academics,” says Barrera.
“We call it a summer of learning and joy. Joy is not a throw-away term.”
What Students Want
It might seem counterintuitive to deemphasize rigorous academic review when students around the country are progressing more slowly than in previous years. But after a grueling year, educators say the worst move would be turning back to textbooks and chalkboards this summer.
“If we’re realistic, we’re not going to catch up to everything that kids didn’t get to this pandemic year in six to ten weeks,” says Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “It’s important to use this summer to not only try and catch up where we can but also just to reacclimate students to being with their peers, to being with their teachers and…to get ready for the coming school year.”
To do that work effectively, districts are banking on higher student participation. And one way to attract more learners is to give them choices about what they’ll be doing.
In Pittsburgh, district leaders have spent the spring asking student groups what they want out of summer learning. For some high schoolers, the answer was help with the SATs, employment guidance or even “Adulting 101”—training on financial literacy and how to file taxes, says Christine Cray, director of student services reforms at Pittsburgh Public Schools. Younger kids wanted more arts activities, more play and more time in person with their friends.
Those replies fed into the district’s Summer B.O.O.S.T. program. Young students will follow a similar calendar to the one in San Diego, with academic recovery in the morning and afternoons devoted to community theater, robotics or even podcasting. High schoolers, whose day ends at lunchtime, will have access to college preparation, job training and counseling.
It’s a menu of free choices that will help meet the far-ranging needs of students this year, says Cray. Her district is focused on fostering a “culture of fun,” which may look different for each kid.
Does It Matter?
All of this engagement takes serious participation from cultural institutions, like the zoos and museums that might host students, and nonprofits that can leverage community support. In Baltimore, that kind of partnership is not new, but the city’s school district is using it in innovative ways to reach more young learners this year.
Young Audiences / Arts for Learning is a nonprofit with a longstanding relationship to Baltimore City Public Schools. The organization’s Summer Arts and Learning Academy pairs artists with teachers to develop curricula that impart math and literacy lessons through art and music. As they expand this summer, they’re also adding a new literature program that connects hundreds more students with teachers and artists across the city.
They’re also trying to craft culturally-responsive curricula. Educators will develop and teach lesson plans that align with weekly themes like identity, justice and activism.
Stacie Sanders Evans, president and CEO of Young Audiences / Arts for Learning, notes that most of the students her organization serves are Black or brown, and that fact helps inform the kinds of books they’ll be reading and art they’re creating. “The heart of all of this is about mattering,” she says. “We seek to engage kids in ways that matter to them.”
It’s also important to remember that ESSER funds support programming through the summer of 2023, and district leaders are hoping to use the innovations they’re developing for years to come. And according to Barrera in San Diego, it’s better to think of the next few months as an opportunity to improve education longterm—not just as part of an emergency recovery effort. After all, good schooling is a perennial goal.
“We’re not just creating this program because we had a pandemic,” he says. “Students should have had these programs for the last 40 years and they should have them going forward for the next 40.”