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Summer school makes a comeback

A more engaging approach to learning brings summer schools to life
A camper at Pittsburgh Public Schools' Camp University Prep learns how to use a pottery wheel.
A camper at Pittsburgh Public Schools' Camp University Prep learns how to use a pottery wheel.

Whether school administrators are braving a hard winter, cheering on their school basketball teams or focusing on end-of-year assessments, summer vacation could seem like a long way off. But for many districts planning for summer school, the months of June and July are closer than they seem.

Summer schools—whether credit recovery courses for high school students or remedial programs for younger children—have long been reliable features of the educational landscape. But the recession and its aftermath of severe budget cuts have changed the priorities of school district leaders.

As districts have tried to keep class sizes down, prevent job cuts and preserve arts and physical education classes, summer programs have become increasingly expendable. In a 2012 survey of school administrators by the American Association of School Administrators, 22 percent indicated that their districts had eliminated summer schools for that year. An additional 29 percent said they were considering the same route for the summer of 2013.

As early as 2008, the Los Angeles USD had reduced its summer school budget from more than $50 million to barely $3 million. Miami-Dade County Public Schools also stopped offering summer school programs in the same year.

“A lot of other school districts even had to eliminate remedial recovery programs,” says Sarah Pitcock, interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA), which helps districts develop summer school programs.

The NSLA has long warned about “summer learning loss” among elementary and middle school students, pointing to research showing that while middle class children on average maintain their reading levels, their disadvantaged counterparts lose two months between school years. The year-by-year accumulation of those deficits in the earlier grades can lead to achievement gaps later on.

Changing summer school as usual

But in a growing number of districts, summer programs are taking off—propelled by a wave of initiatives designed to help at-risk students, make summer school curriculum more engaging, and add new programs through community organizations. From local libraries, museums and YMCAs to programs exploring the great outdoors, districts are turning to other educational providers to make summers successful.

“We can’t afford to run summer programs like we used to. It can’t be school as usual,” says Jim Popp, whose Virgina-based education company, University Instructors (which was acquired late last year by PCG Education) has developed five “summer learning camps” for about a dozen districts in southeastern states. The programs include Leadership Camp, Character Education Camp and Transition Camp, the last of which helps students advance from elementary to middle school.

Over the past four years, NSLA also has emerged as a driving force for redesigning summer education through its “New Vision of Summer School” (NVSS) project. “We’re up to almost 30 mostly large urban districts that want to reimagine how they see summers,” says Pitcock.

Some districts participating in NVSS have started summer schools from scratch, while others have overhauled and expanded existing programs. All of these districts are following NVSS principles, such as lengthening summer school to as much as six weeks and eight hours a day. The programs also have been opened to all Title I students, not just children who are struggling.

And NVSS member districts combine the expected remedial instruction in reading, writing and math with enrichment programs in science, arts, physical education and other subjects.

These districts also are partnering with nonprofit and for-profit education providers that offer everything from STEM camps to ceramics workshops to canoeing trips and judo lessons. “They provide a lot of capacity,” Pitcock says of the growing network of partners at NVSS districts. “Partners have staffing systems and infrastructure” that school districts may not have or cannot afford.

And districts in Atlanta, Seattle, Austin, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are among those participating in NVSS.

From camp to dreamers academy

In Camp MPS—the Minneapolis Public Schools program for elementary and middle schoolers—students learn about water ecology and local history. They also take a canoe trip during which they test chemical changes in the river water and study the river’s economic impact on the surrounding region. Other Minneapolis students attend algebra camp or a STEM program on the campus of a local college.

Cincinnati’s month-long Fifth Quarter summer program for K7 students operates at more than a dozen underperforming schools. The program merges academics with martial arts, planting vegetable gardens, crafting with recycled paper and other activities.

The centerpiece of the summer school resurgence in the Pittsburgh Public Schools is the Summer Dreamers Academy, which last year enrolled 2,800 K8 students. The academy combines morning academics with afternoon activities like judo, ceramics, golf and field trips to a local science center and arts museum. This coming summer, yoga, sewing and cooking will be added to the program.

“We are a summer learning camp, with all the fun of a camp,” Project Manager Christine Cray insists. “We know parents aren’t going to send their kids unless they are engaged.”

While the district organizes the morning academics, Cray recruits outside providers to run the afternoon programs so they “are high quality and unique.” “We’re not experts in water polo or ceramics,” she says. “We look for people who are professionals in these fields.” Cray says there is another benefit to offering a curriculum beyond math and reading. “It’s important to help the students discover new strengths and skills, and bring that confidence into the classroom,” she says.

Homegrown programs

Other districts not part of NVSS have launched their own summer programs with enrichment activities and productive local partnerships built in.

Last summer, the Portland Public Schools in Maine used a nearly $100,000 grant from the Portland-based John T. Gorman Foundation to create a remedial program at three elementary schools. The 135 students in the program were academically behind their classmates heading into grades one through three.

The five-week program stressed math and literacy, but with a twist, says Gail Cressey, the district’s NCLB coordinator. “We were able to offer science as the glue,” Cressey says.

The elementary students went through a succession of science units, which asked them to apply their newfound math and reading skills to scientific investigations and experiments. For example, in the air and weather unit, students used math skills to make atmospheric measurements. They also read books and wrote about weather.

By the end of the program, 95 percent of the students had maintained or increased their reading proficiency, Cressey says.

A three-week program for the Kashunamiut School District in the fishing village of Chevak in western Alaska—offered through the Alaska Learning Labs division of the Southeast Regional Resource Center (SERRC) in Juneau—connects elementary reading and math with native Alaskan culture. Ninety percent of the students were native Alaskans.

“We use fishnets as a basis for math instruction,” says SERRC Executive Director Sheryl Weinberg. A tribal elder teaches the art of net making, for example, while Alaska Learning Lab teachers focus on concepts such as lengths, widths and shapes, Weinberg says.

In the summer of 2011, Santa Ana USD in California used a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grant and two matching grants to start a K2 summer program in reading and writing, and a third- through eighth-grade program for math and science.

“We wanted to ensure that a large amount of our students had access to extended learning opportunities,” says Chief Academic Officer Michelle Rodriguez. More than 13,000 of the district’s 56,000 students participated in the first year of the program, although the enrollment shrunk by almost a third when the federal grant expired. (See sidebar on p. 44.)

Santa Ana USD administrators also partnered with local nonprofit education provider THINK Together, which manages the afternoon activities that include physical fitness, music, dance and field trips.

Last summer, the program recorded reading gains across the board on the Standardized Test for the Assessment of Reading, which is graded on a scale from zero to 1,400. Second graders achieved an average 56-point increase, from 93 to 149. Eighth graders advanced from 472 to 579, a jump of 107 points.

The National Summer Learning Association’s Sarah Pitcock suggests that successful remedial summer programs could further transform themselves by introducing content and concepts that students will encounter in the coming school year.

“They can have a remedial component, but they can also preview what lies ahead,” Pitcock explains. “We want to shift the conversation to summer programs that are accelerating student progress.”

Ron Schacter is a contributing writer.