Summer school once summoned images of unhappy students who had failed a class trudging off to classes to make them up while their friends played in pools.
Schools now offer extensive summer programming for all ages meant to support the whole student academically, emotionally and socially while catching up or accelerating their learning to get ahead of the curve for the next school year.
This change happened about a decade ago, said Mark Holodick, secretary of the Delaware Department of Education.
“The old summer school when I went to school was like, you failed English, you’re taking English again, and it’s going to cost you half the cost of the original credit,” said Jeff Menzer, superintendent of Colonial School District. “That notion of summer school doesn’t exist anymore.”
Districts now, he said, offer a wider array of summer opportunities, which range from credit recovery to 12-month learning to academic enrichment to camps that have educational components to them.
“We are especially concerned about students who have experienced learning loss, so we have to use data wisely to target those students who we know are struggling the most, and we find those students to be in our high needs schools and lower income communities,” Holodick said. “So we have to be incredibly thoughtful and strategic about providing them with summer opportunities that they deserve.”
The summer slide is real and students lose significant learning during the summer months, said Kendall Massett, the executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.
Summer programming helps keep their brains active in order to enter the new school year without difficulty.
“Kids go away in June and then they forget every single thing that they’ve ever learned,” Menzer said.“Then they come back in August and teachers typically spend several weeks rebuilding some things that students need to be stronger in during the school year.”
If teachers are spending the first few weeks of school as a refresher, that’s a chunk of time during which students aren’t able to grow their knowledge by learning new material.
“Summer programming was always a bridge that minimized that loss,” Menzer said. “Typically, prior to the pandemic, it was to maintain and to minimize summer learning loss.”
Post-COVID, Menzer said summer learning at Colonial focuses on using some of its curricular resources to help students who need to catch up or accelerate their learning.
Students in Colonial’s 12-month learning or extended school year program will meet four days a week in person for about seven hours.
Career and technical education opportunities also are offered at most districts in the summer.
Colonial, for example, has a 12-hour culinary program.
SAT and ACT prep courses are available for students to prepare for testing n their junior and senior years of high school.
“So it’s summer programming and it’s summer camps, and families can see online if there’s a fee for a specific program,” Menzer said. “If there’s no fee, then that means it’s supported by grant opportunities and there’s eligibility criteria.
Colonial usually has around 1,500 students across the district participate in summer learning.
The model is the same for charters.
All of the state’s charter schools have some form of summer learning programs, Massett said.
“Just like during the school year, teachers differentiate and help those struggling students and help their accelerating students or their accelerated students,” she said. “You see that in summer learning as well.”
Summer learning has always been a priority of the state, Holodick said.
But coming out of the pandemic, the state and districts now see it as not only a priority, but a necessity.
“We see it as a need, in an effort to support our students more effectively and those summer programs should support students academically but also socially and emotionally,” he said. “They should be appealing and attractive to students, and students should want to attend because of the experiences that they will have in that.”
That’s why, Massett said, a good number of schools combine summer learning with summer camp in order to attract participation.
Depending upon the community and age group, Holodick said schools take a nuanced approach to planning activities and programs around the interests of their children.
Cora Scott, deputy secretary of the Department of Education, said the department provides district and charter authorities with curricula frameworks, resources and materials to plan for summer.
“We actually just met with them to really talk with them about all the elements Dr. Holodick shared regarding incentivizing attendance,” she said. “A big piece for them is getting the commitment from the students and the families to attend regularly for the impact to be there.”
Those incentives can include special camps, special interest classes such as music and field trips.
One way the department and schools have encouraged participation, outside of creating programs of interest, is partnering with community-based organizations.
“They’re able to have their teachers and academic support folks working in the morning focusing on math and literacy,” she said, “and then in the afternoon, the Choir School’s coming in and providing enrichment for STEM and music and field trips. All of those pieces that continue to support social emotional learning, but also the academics and the growth of the students.”
Scott said that the state is pushing the message that due to the pandemic, schools need to add additional learning time for students in order to catch up on unfinished learning.
Ultimately, summer is just another cycle of learning for students, Scott said.
The state hopes summer programs eventually will become part of the school year flow from end of year, through summer, the to start of the new year, rather than seem like a bump in the road.
“Thinking long term, how do you take what you did in the summer and what does that look like then for that child during the school year through maybe school-day tutoring or even before or after school programming?” she said. “And then how are we tracking that so that next summer, that kid might still need some additional support, so we’re trying to frame it as just another cycle of learning and continuous process just to get kids where they need to be with grade-level material.”
Holodick said it’s students are hooked with field trips and thematic, week-long units that incorporate activities that tie the academics to the social emotional learning.
The old-school style of summer school had restrictions, he said, and often was available only to families that could afford credit recovery.
“What we’ve done in pre-K through 12th grade is we have recognized that all of our students need opportunities in the summer months,” he said.
There are groups of students, Scott said, perhaps from lower income communities or minority backgrounds who weren’t given an opportunity to continue their learning in the summer, where students from other backgrounds may have continued to learn through organized summer programs or other experiences.
“Our schools have been really starting to recognize that opportunity gap and have created those opportunities for continued learning for those students who previously didn’t have the opportunity to do so.”
Raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Jarek earned a B.A. in journalism and a B.A. in political science from Temple University in 2021. After running CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s YouTube channel, Jarek became a reporter for the Bucks County Herald before joining Delaware LIVE News.
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