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As the school year ends, many districts expand summer school options

Students attending summer school at Munger Elementary-Middle School in Detroit wait their turn to enter for class on July 23. (Kayla Ruble for The Washington Post)
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Summer school.

In the past, no two words provoked more dread for American students. And many teachers didn’t feel much differently. The mention of summer school conjured up images of sweaty classrooms and dreary assignments meted out as makeup work for a year of flunked tests, missing projects or excessive absences. It wasn’t meant as punishment, but it could feel like it.

As schools approach the end of a full year of pandemic learning, however, summer school is being reimagined and broadened into what is likely to be the most expansive — and expensive — summer programming in modern history, funded in large part by the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. Education leaders see it as a desperately needed remedy for a calamitous school year that left many students across the country struggling and falling behind.

School districts are exploring classes that go beyond addressing learning loss and remedial work to provide social interactions and emotional support for students of every age group. Some districts are even envisioning a robust summer school program as part of an experiment in a move to year-round learning. At the same time, they are faced with the reality that teachers are exhausted after a grinding and chaotic school year and may not be able to hire all the staff they need. But their ambitions for the summer are big.

“Traditionally, summer school has been a program for kids that have not done well in school to try to make up. This year’s going to be different because now that applies to everybody,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

High school students who need to attend a summer session to secure missing credits toward graduation will still be able to do so. But many districts, Domenech said, are also targeting elementary school students who need extra help keeping pace with their peers and special-needs students who weren’t able to get the in-person instruction they required during the pandemic.

They are not only concentrating on academics but also addressing social and emotional needs of students that were made far worse as their lives were disrupted by the coronavirus. Although most districts are making summer school voluntary, districts are expecting demand for spots will be greater than ever. The summer session in Fairfax, Va., for instance, will serve 10 times as many students as usual, officials said.

Remote learning has presented unique challenges for students, like Ana Reyes, who are also immigrants and speak English as as second language. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Lindsey Sitz/The Washington Post)

How the pandemic is reshaping education

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said schools need to be creative and employ a “sense of urgency” to summer programming. “The summer learning experiences we’re talking about now really need to be better than they ever were in the past,” he said in a call with reporters earlier this month.

Cardona also said districts will need to work with local community groups and organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs of America to create additional learning opportunities and experiences for children.

The Education Department — in partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association — is launching an effort this month to encourage states to use American Rescue Plan funding for programs that will address lost instructional time as well as other activities, especially for underserved communities.

Some school districts that have struggled to afford offering summer school courses in the past are now able to make them available with the funding allocated by Congress. In fact, in the American Rescue Plan, Congress set aside $1.2 billion that states, districts and schools must use to build successful summer programs. And it requires districts to spend 20 percent of their funding on mitigation of learning loss, which could include summer school.

Philadelphia schools superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced two weeks ago that the district would provide summer school opportunities “for any family who wants their child in some sort of program.” And earlier this month, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill requiring that districts offer students at least six weeks of summer school. On Tuesday, the East St. Louis, Ill., school district board extended its school year by adding an additional month of required classes.

More than just classroom instruction

“What’s unique to this moment to some degree is the need for a comprehensive whole-child approach,” said Aaron Philip Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “There has been real trauma and negative impacts on communities of color and low-income communities. More people lost their jobs and died in certain communities. More need social-emotional learning than ever.”

“You can’t say to kids, ‘Welcome back, we’re glad to see you. We’ll ignore the trauma you have had. Now let’s do reading and math,’ ” Dworkin said. He added that he hopes districts are not just “throwing together” programs with new federal money.

Along with academics, he said, students will need health and fitness programs as well as artistic opportunities. “A lot of research shows that students who do art and academics do better academically than students who are in academic-only programs,” he said.

A problem for summer school, Dworkin said, is that it has historically had a reputation for being punitive and mandatory for just a few remedial students.

“We need to make it great so that everybody wants to come, no stigma attached,” he said. “That’s the shift.”

Will school be back to normal this fall? Kind of. Sort of. Maybe

In the San Diego Unified School District, the school board recently approved $22 million for a comprehensive summer program that includes academic learning — in person and remote — as well as other learning experiences.

“We’re calling it a summer ‘experience’ because it’s summer school like no other before,” said Superintendent Cindy Marten at her Senate confirmation hearing as No. 2 at the U.S. Education Department.

San Diego Unified’s schools, which reopened April 12, had been closed since March 2020 because of the pandemic, though some in-person instruction and services were provided since October for the neediest students.

“Everybody has been touched by this pandemic,” Marten said. “What we are planning for our students is addressing learning loss from an academic perspective but also from a social-emotional perspective.”

With some 20 percent of high school seniors not on track to graduate and a jump in D and F grades for middle and high school students, there will be a big summer school focus on academics — but also opportunities for social and emotional enrichment. Students will do academics at school in the mornings — and in the afternoon, they will be free to engage in sports, music, the arts, surf and ballet camps, trips to the science museum and more.

Students in all grades can come to school in the mornings for four hours a day — with some online work, too — and then engage in other activities during the afternoon. As with many other districts, San Diego will offer an online credit-recovery program for high school students who may need a few credits to graduate.

Other school districts, including ones in Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Mesa, Ariz., are also including programs to help students deal with the impact covid has had on their lives, said Domenech, of the American Association of School Administrators.

“In addition to the academic component, their intent is to provide recreational activities for the kids to help them overcome the social-emotional issues that this past year brought up,” he said.

A better way to make sense of pandemic “learning loss”

Year-round school?

As more schools expand their summer school programs, advocates for a longer school year say the changes should be made permanent.

Marten said that when she was a teacher in San Diego, learning at her school was year-round and that it made a big difference in the progress students made.

“I always saw the difference it made when students had uninterrupted learning,” she said. “What you can do when you create these kind of robust summer learning experiences makes a huge difference.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that he wants the summers of 2021 and 2022 to be more than “powerful opportunities” for districts to focus resources to help catch students up on what they lost during the pandemic.

“We could also learn some things about what the optimal length of the school year should be,” he said during a recent Senate committee hearing. “We could use it as an experiment, and we might come out of the experiment and decide that, you know, September-to-May, there is nothing magic about it, and possibly the best way to help our kids is to have a longer school year or to readjust the school calendar to minimize learning loss.”

Harris Cooper, a professor in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University who has researched summer learning, said he supports the idea of looking at expanding the school year and questions whether the summer break makes sense anymore.

“A positive outcome of opening schools early could be that it prompts parents and educators to think outside the box with regard to how we schedule the school year. Given the way people live today, is the long summer break archaic? Could kids benefit by extending the school, especially the 2021-2022, year from the typical 180 days to 200?”

Such a shift would require buy-in from lots of partners: students, parents, teachers and entire communities. But it could usher in the end of summer school and a move toward year-round learning. In the short run at least, educators are hopeful that students, many of whom have missed out on essential learning this year, are ready to embrace summer school opportunities and no longer view it with a sense of dread.

Getting teachers on board

While the American Rescue Plan addresses funding concerns, attracting qualified teachers to work during the summer could prove more difficult.

“Many teachers, including me, are exhausted right now from teaching during the pandemic,” said Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English and social studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. “Many of us are not going to have anything left to give this summer.”

Eric Mackey, Alabama schools superintendent, said he recently received a message from a district superintendent saying his teachers are wiped out after a year of in-person, virtual and hybrid teaching.

“He said our teachers are just tired,” Mackey said. “They are saying they can’t do a whole summer.”

Arlington Public Schools in Virginia recently announced on its website that “participation in summer school will be contingent upon APS being able to hire a sufficient number of teachers to staff the programs. If necessary, some students may need to be waitlisted.”

The Salem City School District in Ohio is not offering summer school at all because, officials said, it was too hard to recruit staff. It will concentrate resources to help students catch up in the next school year.

States and school districts are pulling out their checkbooks to make the prospect of summer teaching more attractive. The recently passed North Carolina bill provides bonuses for teachers who participate. In Rockbridge County, Va., school officials are offering summer teachers $35 an hour instead of the usual $23. Anderson School District 5 in South Carolina is using covid-19 relief money from the federal government to double the pay — from about $30 an hour to $60 — for teachers working any part of two three-week sessions for students.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said teachers are more than ready to engage with summer school, particularly when they can play a formative role in the process.

“When I engage my members in conversations about what this could be, a light came on in their eyes, and they were so full of ideas,” Pringle said. “When you give educators that space to create for their kids and they believe they have the power and authority to make it what it needs to be for them, it is quite amazing. I fully expect many educators will step up to that call.”