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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Educators nationwide completely reimagined summer school this summer. It could signal a new era.

Fifth-grade students at McAlpine Elementary School in Charlotte dance and sing during a music class on June 17. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was among districts able to offer or expand summer school programs by leveraging federal pandemic relief money. (Nancy Pierce/AP)
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At the start of the summer, recess at Silverbrook Elementary looked weird.

Whenever Shannon Mueck, who led summer learning at the Northern Virginia school, stepped outside to the playground, she saw children engaged in solo play: swinging alone, sitting by themselves or repeatedly pacing the perimeter. Kids at all grade levels, especially the youngest students, seemed unsure how to interact with one another after months of remote schooling and corona­virus-driven isolation.

But by the close of summer, after Silverbrook’s 110 summer students completed an intensive three-week program, things changed.

“At the end, they were planning what they were going to do before they got out there,” Mueck said. “And once they did, it was all: ‘Do you want to swing with me?’ ‘Are you going to bring the ball?’ ‘Can we bring the jump rope?’ ‘Who wants to play tag?’ ”

The success at Silverbrook comes after districts throughout the nation held summer programs that in many places lasted longer, involved more students and included more academic and extracurricular opportunities than ever before.

Officials made summer school free and available to students in all grades, often for the first time. Districts convinced exhausted teachers to staff summer school by upping pay rates and offering bonuses of up to $1,000. County and state officials alike chipped in by allocating millions to summer learning. The Biden administration set aside approximately $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money for summer school and decreed that districts must spend 20 percent of their funding on mitigation of learning loss, which could include summer school.

“This year’s summer programs were much more expansive than they ever were,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association.

But ‘it’s break!’: Thousands of D.C.-area kids head to summer school, sometimes reluctantly

The overarching aim of this year’s summer schooling was to start repairing learning loss suffered during the coronavirus pandemic — a toll that fell heaviest on students of color, students with disabilities and those whose first language is not English.

It is too soon to say whether this worked as intended: Data is not yet available broadly on whether summer school made a difference in students’ academic performance. Many school districts are still in the process of gathering test results, while others opted not to test children in an attempt to make summer learning more engaging.

But there was a simpler goal to summer school, too: Educators hoped to convince children that learning inside a classroom can be fun again. Schools across the country offered specially designed activities that walked the line between school and summer camp.

Judged by those standards, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on a recent panel, summer learning was a success. He said he visited 17 states in recent months partly to check on schools’ summer offerings.

“I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen,” he said. “Our teachers worked really hard, bent over backwards … [and] by and large, across the country, we saw some innovative programming.”

In Hermiston, Ore., teachers taught third-graders about dinosaurs by having them excavate chocolate chips from soft cookies in imitation of how paleontologists dig for fossils, according to the East Oregonian. In South Bend, Ind., summer students built “vocabulary houses” by writing new words on Popsicle sticks, then gluing the sticks to a milk carton, the South Bend Tribune reported.

And in Washington County, Md., teachers created week-long seminars meant to teach math and literacy students, but formatted them like mini-summer camps, said spokeswoman Erin Anderson. During each camp, students learned the standards by engaging in activities tied to a particular theme — such as gardening, cooking, robotics, coding and even anime.

Teachers and administrators in some places are already confident this kind of innovation led to clear academic gains. For example, in Iowa’s Columbus School District, officials said initial assessments show summer learners improved their English-language and math skills over a four-week program, according to the Hawk Eye.

At Silverbrook Elementary in Virginia, Mueck said she noticed a marked improvement in students’ ability to write. Teachers asked children to turn in writing samples at the start and end of summer school. At first many struggled, Mueck said, especially with the concept of fitting letters onto a line. But by summer’s end, most everyone was writing without trouble on lined paper, sharing their thoughts in full sentences and confidently employing punctuation such as periods.

“They even related their words to little illustrations they drew,” Mueck said.

Still, it is certain that some of the nation’s most vulnerable children didn’t to make it into the summer programs expressly designed to benefit them. In Boston, for example, the public school system had hoped to fill 15,000 summer-school seats, but wound up with about 11,000 students, or three-quarters of its target number, according to WGBH. Educators in the system attributed the failure to families’ lack of interest or lack of transportation. Other children may have had to work summer jobs to support their families.

“Sometimes kids who are underperforming are harder to reach due to their family situation,” said Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp. who has studied education for 20 years. “And this past summer it was even harder, because a lot of kids weren’t in school where teachers can connect with them and talk to them about summer opportunities, or talk to their parents during pickup and drop-off.”

Some systems also struggled with staffing. Arlington Public Schools in Northern Virginia was forced to shrink its summer school from 5,000 to 3,000 students because of staffing shortages, severely disappointing some families.

“Teachers really felt burned out after this past year and were not ready to take on summer school as well,” said Domenech of the superintendents’ group.

Lacking teachers, Fairfax delays summer school for hundreds of students with disabilities

Elsewhere, though, school systems saw record attendance. San Diego Unified School District reported a 600 percent increase in summer school participation, rising from about 5,000 students in a typical year to more than 30,000 this past summer, according to spokesman Andrew Sharp.

New York City Public Schools offered summer school to all students for the first time in district history, according to spokeswoman Sarah Casasnovas, and saw more than 200,000 students enroll across all grade levels. In Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest district with 180,000 students, 38,000 students signed up for summer school and approximately 32,000 completed the program — representing about double the summer school attendance from 2019, the last pre-pandemic year.

Augustine of Rand Corp. said school systems that successfully boosted summer enrollment often did so by working with neighborhood groups such as boys’ and girls’ clubs to hold programs or recruit families. In many places, local nonprofit organizations and community centers had stepped up to house remote learners over the past year and a half, she said, so they were already in touch with families.

Plus, Augustine said, school officials traveled to reach parents where they were, visiting places including churches. Officials also texted and called mothers and fathers repeatedly to detail the benefits of summer school. The national spotlight on summer school helped, too, she said.

In Baltimore City Public Schools, more than 17,000 children showed up to summer school, marking a significant increase from the typical count of 9,000 or 10,000, said Lara Ohanian, director of differentiated learning.

Ohanian said Baltimore City had little difficulty recruiting teachers, in part because the school system increased pay rates for summer staffers. The school district of 78,000 also expanded the length of summer learning from five weeks to six.

The district gathered data on students’ academic standing at the beginning and end of the summer, but those statistics won’t be released until December or January, Ohanian said. Nonetheless, anecdotal reports from teachers — as well as what Ohanian observed herself, visiting summer classrooms — are promising, she said.

One tactic in particular proved successful, Ohanian said. For the first time in district history, Baltimore City added small-group literacy tutoring for all elementary students who participated in summer learning. Every week, tiny groups of students, organized by reading level, met with a virtual or in-person tutor to work on their reading skills.

It went so well that Baltimore City is continuing the tutoring into the fall.

“Students are just going to come in impacted in such different ways that having targeted tutoring programs like this, that can focus in on the students and their specific needs, is going to be really critical,” Ohanian said. “Actually, I think the summer should be thought of as step one to a larger tutoring strategy.”

How the pandemic is reshaping education

Aaron Dworkin, chief executive of the National Summer Learning Association, said schools nationwide learned similar lessons, discovering what his organization has long argued: that summer learning can serve to pilot crucial academic initiatives that continue into the school year.

Dworkin’s association, which partners with school systems, government agencies and nonprofit organizations, hopes to change the public conception of summer learning. He noted that, “historically, the reputation of summer school has been that of a punishment.”

But that may be changing after this past summer, Dworkin said.

“You can make it so positive that people want to come to summer learning, and now a lot of schools know that,” he said. “We do believe this could be a watershed moment for summer school in America.”