Districts Turn to Summer Learning to Fight Pandemic's Impact

As some schools are creating new programs to meet the crisis, In Tuscaloosa City (AL) Schools, where summer learning is part of the core educational strategy, an already successful summer program has expanded.

School districts across the country are turning to summer programs to combat the educational impact of the pandemic. SLJ’s May survey of 427 school librarians showed 61 percent of the respondents’ districts were planning summer programs specifically designed to overcome student learning loss during this time. Under the federal pandemic relief package, states are required to use some of the money for summer programs. 

The state of Tennessee made it mandatory for all schools to offer six weeks of programming. In Philadelphia, summer programs have been expanded to district-wide eligibility and, by partnering with community organizations, offer in-person options for every grade level. More than 14,500 students had enrolled so far, according to one report, which said there were 9,300 students in last summer’s all-virtual summer sessions. New York City, which has the country’s largest public school system, and San Diego are also offering summer school for all students not just those struggling academically.

Students participate in Tuscaloosa City Schools
summer learning program.
Photos courtesy: Tuscaloosa City Schools

While some locations are creating new programs to respond to the crisis, at Tuscaloosa City (AL) Schools, summer learning has been a core part of their educational strategy for years. The district's goal is to “normalizing” summer learning and end the "summer slide" and future achievement gaps.

This summer,  the district “significantly” expanded the scope of its plans, “thanks to the willingness and openness of parents this summer, and the influx of [federal] funding,” says Andrew Maxey, director of strategic initiatives for Tuscaloosa City Schools.

About 40 percent of the budget for this summer is covered by the CARES Act, according to Maxey. They are also using 21st Century program funds, other federal grant money, and a local tax that provides $50,000 toward the district’s summer work.

“That's a pretty significant municipal commitment,” Maxey says.

This is the fifth year of the program and there are more students, more programs, and more staff than ever before. The board of education approved more than 500 staff members, which includes directors, educators, aides, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. Of approximately 10,500 students in the district, 3,200 are in its summer programs. More than 50 percent of the students in grades K-3 are in the district’s summer learning program. That doesn’t include students participating with community partner organizations that are running programs on school campus. Maxey knows it will have an impact.

“National data suggests that all students lose an average of a month of learning every summer, and students who are academically vulnerable lose more like two months of math and reading,” he says. “So for us, the purpose of summer is zero; return the kids to school in August at the place where they left in May.”

But when he looked at the data from previous years of the district’s summer program and testing when students returned to school, it revealed something even better. While the numbers vary by subject and grade, the overall result shows that students who participated returned for the next school year with about a month’s gain in reading and math, according to Maxey.

“We have really concrete data,” says Maxey. The analysis further showed that in schools where a large percentage of students participated, the entire school benefitted, he says.

“It was clearly visible in their beginning-of-the-year assessments, the positive impact of summer learning on that schools progress overall,” he says, noting that the impact went well beyond the small subset of kids who participated.

For Tuscaloosa City, summer learning starts at the midpoint of the year when students are identified as VIPs (very important participants). Then the work with communicating with parents begins—we have this great summer program and your child has a spot.

There are always parents who don’t sign up their children. But this year, program directors reported to Maxey that that was not a significant issue. Very few parents declined. He believes that the number of students enrolled in the program shows that parents trust their COVID safety protocols and value the summer program. He also knows for some parents it is simply a practical choice: a place for their child to go, be fed, and learn something, too.

“Sure, that was in the calculus of some,” says Maxey. “But we serve the community and ask them what they want in the summer space. Why should we [judge] the parents that need something safe and productive for their kids to do? And if we are able to meet that need and provide an opportunity to learn, that seems like a bonus.”

This is the fifth year of the Tuscaloosa City Schools summer learning program since the district made summer learning a core
part of its educational strategy.  With the help of CARES Act funding, the program expanded for this summer.

So, the parents were in for Summer 2021, but Maxey was concerned about staff at the end of this very difficult and draining year. Who would want to teach? Would it be too much?

“I was very worried about that,” says Maxey, whose nervousness increased as he watched enrollment double as the district decided not to turn anyone away. It meant hiring more staff. The district set up very specific strategies to make it work for everyone.

First, administrators listened to the teachers who said they didn’t want a week or two off between school and the summer learning. They preferred starting right away and completing the program before time off in July and getting back to work in August. Flexibility was also key. Teachers were only asked to work half of the day and could take on the second half if they wanted.

Community partners are running programs on the campuses, too.

“We try to help increase capacity of community-based organizations,” Maxey says. “If the quality of all programs is higher, that only helps our kids.”

The district also got creative for staffing. Certification isn’t a barrier for summer learning, he says, so program directors could just look for people they knew would do a good job in a particular position.

For example, a middle school teacher is teaching kindergarten, a few instructional aides working on certifications were hired, and educators from outside of the district were brought in, as well as a number of people who had just graduated college and were due to start teaching in the district that fall. Program directors approached the recent graduates and pitched the work as an opportunity to get experience in the district with less pressure and smaller classes. And it's fun. At least, it looked like fun when Maxey stood in the back at a first day assembly where staff played music and danced.

“Some of that seems hard to fake,” he says. “This is a fun atmosphere. We're doing solid work, but it doesn't have quite the heaviness that school has sometimes.”

Maxey cannot stress it enough: This is not summer school.

“We stopped saying summer school on purpose, because it's substantively different,” says Maxey. “It's not required. It's not punitive. It's not credit recovery. It sets your brain on fire, and you love it.”

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