Education Funding

Districts Turning Summer School Into Learning Labs

By Nora Fleming — June 11, 2013 7 min read

Summer school, once thought of as a place for failing students, is being overhauled.

Districts and communities are shifting from offering duplicative Algebra 2 and U.S. history classes to using the summertime as an opportunity to experiment with innovative teaching and learning methods.

This summer, students are learning the science involved in crime-scene investigations in Florida, the math involved in constructing infrastructure for a community center in Michigan, and how the themes of one novel can apply to various academic disciplines in California.

With evidence growing that languid summer months can have a harmful impact on student performance, particularly for disadvantaged students, an increasing number of districts are seeing summer as one strategy for school improvement.

“A strong body of research tells us that summer learning loss significantly affects a student’s success,” said Gary Huggins, the chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association, an advocacy organization. “Districts need to start thinking about the whole year for a student, and that summer is part of what we do and part of what we address—not just a luxury if the district has extra money.”

Nevertheless, with limited resources, creativity is required to design new curricula and drive districts and organizations to be strategic with the funding, partnerships, and staffing that support the new models.

According to Mr. Huggins, summer is ripe for innovation because the constraints of the school year—limited hours in the school day, a structured curriculum, and high-pressure assessments—are less present. Many districts now can dismiss those restrictions in the summer, lengthening the time spent on learning or other activities and finding new ways to deliver curricula—without tests hanging over students’ and teachers’ heads.

And successful experiments can later be incorporated into the regular school day.

Built-In Flexibility

Mr. Huggins’ Baltimore-based association, for example, works with 25 districts that are shifting from traditional remedial offerings to a new type of summer school centered around a set of common practices—such as blended academics and enrichment, and proficiency-based learning for older students—and enhanced features, field trips among them, that encourage student attendance and, in some instances, offer course credit.

While all the districts follow the key principles, for example, their programs vary, Mr. Huggins said.

New York City is using community resources to provide digital learning opportunities. In Providence, R.I., the district has built its five-day-a-week summer program on the most successful practices of its after-school programs. And locations like Birmingham, Ala., are using community spaces such as zoos and museums to enhance curricula.

The goal is to be creative with scarce resources while offering something that appeals to students as well as helps them academically, Mr. Huggins said.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, that means tailoring program sites to the students served, said Chana Edmond-Verley, a senior program officer with the local Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation, which underwrites summer programs through a project called Believe2Become.

Twenty-three organizations in Grand Rapids, including schools, Girl Scouts, dance troupes, and churches, will offer programs serving more than 1,100 P-12 students from public and private schools at 36 sites.

Believe2Become prescribes a 50-50 structure of academics to enrichment, but each site decides what that looks like, Ms. Edmond-Verley said. Some concentrate on creating college pathways for students and integrate college visits and preparation work into their instruction, for example, while others connect youths with job experiences that reinforce academic content. Ideally, programs are expected to run at least six hours a day and provide hands-on instruction for academics and enrichment.

Artful Integration

Crafting a curriculum that provides both academics and enrichment can be difficult for districts and other providers, especially when balancing logistics and other needs, such as transportation, teacher contracts, and other staffing, some observers say.

Jennifer Sloan McCombs, a senior researcher at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., who has studied summer learning, says the goal is to combine the two, not to force connections.

“One of the keys is not to tack on artificial academic activities to enrichment, but provide authentic opportunities that integrate both,” she said.

Ms. McCombs is working on a research project supported by the Wallace Foundation that examines five urban districts’ full-day summer programs for disadvantaged elementary students. The project aims to help programs get better and measure the outcome of participants over the short and long terms.

“The challenge [districts face] is making seamless connections between academics and enrichment,” Ms. McCombs added. “It takes a lot of planning; it doesn’t happen by magic.”

Those connections can be quite artful. In Sacramento, Calif., which is not part of the RAND study, middle and high school students are improving their academics through hands-on service-learning projects they select and design.

Working with several partners, the 48,000-student district has students create community projects rooted in a social-justice, youth-development framework, and then has teachers integrate academic lessons into them.

Past summer projects have included designing a disaster-preparedness robot, creating AIDS- and homeless-awareness campaigns, building a community garden, and writing books for elementary students on bullying, said Zenae Scott, the district’s youth-development coordinator.

Funding Restrictions

The tasks don’t end with curriculum development.

Remedial summer school tends to be one of the line items districts trim from their budgets when strapped for funds. And many traditional summer school programs have been shown to have minimal impact on student performance.

Although research indicates that today’s new models are showing early positive results for students’ academic and developmental needs, obstacles remain in proving the necessity of using public dollars to back them.

According to Jacqueline Bowen, the executive director of secondary education programs in the Duval County district in Florida, much of the struggle is tied to the difficulty in paying for programs within the restrictions commonly attached to public funding.

Federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students, for example, can be used to support summer programs, but the money must be earmarked for academic purposes, she said. So while enrichment classes can provide academic support, they may not always qualify for the federal aid, Ms. Bowen said.

Those fiscal barriers have meant the 125,000-student district turned to foundation dollars and community resources when it switched from remedial programs to more robust summer offerings.

What’s more, Duval County is now using summer to meet yearlong academic goals. For instance, middle and high school “bridge” programs, which help students make the transition to the next grade level, are structured around the principles aimed at acclimating teachers and students to the Common Core State Standards, while still offering new, engaging curriculum. Middle school students will be following the English/language arts standards when they complete reading and writing activities in their anti-bullying program, for example.

Making the Case

Despite the funding restrictions, there is more flexibility with public dollars than many districts assume, said Jennifer Peck, the executive director of the Oakland, Calif.-based Partnership for Children and Youth, a nonprofit group that works to increase summer learning opportunities and the money that supports them.

While public funding is essential to providing summer offerings, she said, schools and communities must partner with organizations to make sure a program is of high quality and sustainable.

With long-standing research that shows learning loss over the summer can be significant and newer studies now indicating high-quality programs can be effective in reducing it, efforts to prove the legitimacy and worthiness of supporting summer learning may be less challenging, Ms. Peck added.

“A rapidly growing number of superintendents and school board members are seeing summer learning as a priority and are finding ways to invest in these programs in cost-effective ways,” Ms. Peck said. “But still, many don’t understand how severe summer learning loss can be, especially for disadvantaged students. Where there are scarce public resources, we need to ensure that these students are prioritized.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Districts Turning Summer School Into Learning Labs


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