Special Report
Student Well-Being

How Educators Are Approaching Summer Learning This Year

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 27, 2021 9 min read
Image of kids with backpacks running outdoors.
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The challenge of striking a balance between academics and other educational activities during the summer is more relevant than ever after the exhausting and disruptive year students have been through.

Melanie Claxton believes there’s a simple but transformative step school leaders can take: Ask the students themselves what they’d like to do. In the process you’ll also find out what they think they need.

For Claxton, the coordinator of out-of-school-time activities for the Pittsburgh school district, that process involves work not typically associated with remedial studies in sweltering July classrooms, like putting together focus groups of students to inform what their days look like, and what partnerships with outside groups look like.

One major result of this and other planning strategies for the district’s Summer B.O.O.S.T. program after a year of unprecedented disruption is to incorporate more activities focused on social-emotional learning, finding ways to help students connect in-person with their peers, and burnishing their financial-literacy skills, among other priorities.

“We want to make sure that they have some voice and choice in the process,” Claxton said of students. “I don’t think folks have said it should simply be academics, or it should simply fun. I think they recognize there’s a need for both.”

For its SEL summer component, the district plans to have circle discussions for students to discuss things like academic goals and current events, get-to-know-you questions, and a closing exercise.

The district may also draw on resources from Pittsburgh schools’ SEL curriculum to help students set goals for the summer or the next academic year, learn about “self efficacy,” and participate in activities where they work as teams to accomplish challenges and try different strategies to solving problems. Having students talk with law enforcement officers about police-community relations is another option the district is considering.

Along the way, Claxton and her team have consulted with everybody from medical staff at a local children’s hospital to the district’s principals.

In addition, Claxton said Pittsburgh’s summer program is connecting students with workforce-development opportunities in the afternoon hours, through partners like Partner4Work and Learn & Earn, that help students see what can come after K-12. “We try not to make it this burdensome thing they have to do,” Claxton said of the principles behind the summer programming.

Summer learning is a national priority

Best practices for summer learning programs seldom attract significant attention at the highest levels of government. But the pandemic has changed that. And it’s fueled the debate over what the priorities should be for students when the school year ends in several weeks.

In the American Rescue Plan, the COVID-19 relief package signed by President Joe Biden in March, Congress set aside 1 percent of more than $122 billion in K-12 education funding for states to support summer enrichment programs.

But in crafting those programs, there’s a question of balance that extends beyond the students. After more than a year of stress and isolation, adults probably won’t want to be stuck inside in a traditional school settings any more than children, said Aaron Dworkin, the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. That’s underscored by the distinct possibility that social distancing and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies might persist into the warmer months.

Despite the surge of interest in summer programs and rhetoric about their heightened importance, longstanding disparities and local conditions should also be accounted for.

“Not every community has a thousand nonprofits or cultural institutions to go visit,” Dworkin said. “The moment we’re in requires hypercollaboration and hypercreativity. We need those special local leaders to bring people and resources together so they can plan together.”

Infographic on structuring a successful summer approach for students needs academics and social learning in the mix.

In many places, summer plans remain uncertain

There could be significant reluctance to mandate certain approaches to summer learning.

A nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center of 935 district leaders, principals, and teachers from March 31 to April 7 found that just 18 percent of their districts are requiring students to attend in-person summer school, and just 6 percent are requiring attendance in remote summer school.

In some cases, education leaders might not have settled on plans, or communicated them to the public. An analysis of 100 large and urban school districts from the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that more than half—53—hadn’t shared any information about their strategies for the summer as of March. Of the 47 that did, 22 didn’t say whether the programs would be in-person, virtual, or a mix. And 23 districts identified “enrichment” as a top priority for summer programs.

Highlighting the desire for summer programs to focus on academic work, CRPE’s report expressed concern that almost none of the plans they reviewed relied on intense tutoring or standardized assessments to inform their summer learning programs.

Along with shifts like a new emphasis on students’ social connections, Claxton of the Pittsburgh district said its summer programming is increasing the length of time blocks in a typical day devoted to English/language arts and math from 75 minutes last summer to 90 minutes; last summer, the shorter academic block was due in part to concerns about screen time.

The summer could also turn into a bridge into the next school year even for those who haven’t been in K-12 systems yet. Hawaii public schools, for example, are running a three-week summer program to help get children who may have missed out on preschool ready for kindergarten.

Meeting kids where they already want to be

Matthew Hathaway has been running “Teachers in the Parks” in the summer months for over 15 years. Headquartered in Wyomissing, Pa., and serving students in 13 local school districts, the program’s main principle is embedded in its name. Instead of bringing children to school buildings, where there’s often an associated “nasty stigma” during the summer, he said, teachers essentially become part of the parks and recreation programs. Districts provide the “gift” of instruction to children’s everyday experiences.

“Kids know what it is. Parents know what it is. We don’t try to sugarcoat it and say it’s something it’s not,” said Hathaway, who is a 4th grade teacher in the Exeter, Pa., school district. “At the end, kids go right back to play with their peers.”

Teachers in the Parks relies on local teachers who children are familiar with, and for the upcoming summer, the program plans to allow just 10 students for every teacher. It’s the kind of small-group situation that can lead to “magic” for kids, Hathaway said. There’s about 90 minutes each day of what he called intense instruction, a strategy he said strikes a balance between addressing student needs and valuing the time of both teachers and children who can’t or don’t want to do a full-day program. Concerns about costs, facilities, and logistics are kept to a minimum, relatively speaking.

Participating districts can work with Teachers in the Parks to adapt the program to their students’ needs. “Kids deserve to have a great summer, but there are clearly children who have sustained a significant deficit because of COVID,” Hathaway said.

Summer program providers are working to strengthen their understanding of students’ academic progress, and where they need support the most, after a disrupted year.

Emily Ullman, the director of community engagement and partnerships with the Salem, Mass., school district, said she’s working more closely with her district colleagues than in past years on academic issues, such as where students stand with respect to meeting certain learning standards. If there’s information that students should receive extra instruction on fractions, for example, Ullman wants to know about it.

“We can’t expect that everyone’s going to come in and have the same skills they did on day one as last year,” Ullman said.

But the desire for sharing information across systems and different parts of the year extends beyond that.

For the upcoming summer, Ullman and her colleagues are relying extensively on the knowledge and relationships at City Connects, a student-support network involving the district and the city that relies on input from different staff to create individualized student success plans. These plans can involve after-school recreation programs, housing assistance, and tutoring.

“Any quality learning in school or out of school has a balance with the whole kid in mind,” Ullman said.

Staffing and scheduling can be important factors

Helping students through summer academic and enrichment programs can require creative staffing and scheduling approaches as well.

Pittsburgh’s summer program isn’t the only program focused on social-emotional learning after a difficult year. For the first time, Big Thought, a Dallas initiative involved in “City of Learning” programs focused on summer activities, will provide social-emotional learning “coaches” who will work alongside summer staff dedicated to academic and other programming.

Sergio Garcia, the senior manager of learning systems at Big Thought, said the additions of these coaches represents a recognition that “the mental health and wellness needs of our youth are at an all-time high.”

Ullman’s summer strategy in Salem, Mass., meanwhile, relies on two-person teams of a Salem school educator and a staffer from the local YMCA. From 8 a.m. to noon, educators work on project-based learning with students. They might, for example, use an activity from a local museum that asks students to design a package that has to be dropped into a natural disaster zone.

In the afternoon, YMCA staff take the reins; students get to choose from a variety of activities, from swimming to robotics. Some students spend time in school buildings, others don’t.

Using lessons from Big Thought’s programming last summer, when enrichment and activities went into virtual mode, Garcia also said he’s learned that students sometimes do better when different activities are broken up into 10-, 15-, or 30-minute sessions. This helps students stay engaged and not feel like they are slogging through a two-hour activity.

He’s also trying to think about how programs can help students guide their own activities. For example, creative writing can include an academic component that will also allow students to share their feelings and experiences during the pandemic.

Don’t abandon what’s worked just because of pandemic pressure

Balance is also a question when determining which students should be a priority for programs.

This summer, Salem schools’ referral-based summer program is due to double in size from last year, from 400 to 800 students. The school system is prioritizing “high-needs” categories of students, like those who are homeless and English-language learners, and then expanding the circle of eligibility from there, Ullman said; the system’s summer programs typically focus on those and other students with acute needs.

Ultimately, the litany of new pressures and potential changes leaders might consider due to COVID-19 could create tough choices for summer leaders. Yet Ullman cautioned that summer-program leaders shouldn’t carelessly toss out what’s worked before.

“COVID changed some things. But building relationships with kids, and building an environment that’s fun and challenging, is the same as it was before,” Ullman said. “Now is the time to lean on systems you’ve built that are successful, not create all-new things that nobody has the energy to do.”

Source list: Emily Ullman, director of community engagement & partnerships, Salem Public Schools, Salem, Mass.; Melanie Claxton, coordinator, out-of-school time, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pittsburg, Pa.; Matthew Hathaway, founder & president, Teachers in the parks, Wyomissing, Pa.; Sergio Garcia, senior manager of learning systems, Big Thought, Dallas, Texas; Aaron Dworkin, CEO, National Summer Learning Alliance, Washington, D.C.; Robin Berlinsky, executive director, Engaging Creative Minds, North Charleston, S.C.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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