As director of the Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network, Katie Landes said, “I don’t disagree that kids need an opportunity to reengage almost through disengagement. They need opportunities for fun, to relax. This has been a challenging year for everyone, but for kids especially.”
But Landes said tried-and-true summer programs that provide enrichment, safety and fun can provide a release for children, especially those who don’t have neighborhood pools or grandparents waiting for them. “We see in Atlanta and Georgia a lot of inequities related to summer in who has access to high-quality enrichment experiences,” said Landes. “We need to make sure we are lessening those inequities.”
“If you are telling me your kids want to go bike riding, why don’t we create a bike riding program in the summer where kids learn to design bikes, build them or fix them?” said Aaron P. Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “It becomes disguised learning where you are having so much fun, you don’t even realize you’re learning.”
In a recent livestream chat, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona agreed that summer school doesn’t have to look like school, suggesting, for example, that kids get free passes to local museums and complete assignments about what they saw.
Dworkin says summer school is being rebranded as summer learning or exploration. “Summer school has a history of being punitive, remedial and a punishment. Summer learning is the opposite of all that — you want to make it so exciting that everyone wants to come.”
The Horizons Atlanta summer program subscribes to the approach of seeding its learning in fields of fun. Horizons brings low-income metro area public school students to 10 private school and university campuses without charge for six weeks of swimming, gardening, theater, science, excursions and literacy and math enrichment with certified teachers allowed to be creative and innovative in their methods.
Last summer’s fully virtual summer program at Horizons saw a drop in attendance. With the intent to be in person this summer as much as possible, executive director Alex Wan said families now want to return. “The kids are craving that interaction, that fun. They want to get back into swimming, back into the arts and cultural things we do.”
Although the program emphasizes play, Horizons is serious about attendance, requiring children show up. “You can’t miss more than three days, and that expectation is laid out when we recruit families,” said Wan.
A major 2016 Rand study followed the summer school outcomes for 3,000 low-income elementary-age children in five cities, finding few benefits because of attendance lags. One out of 5 students never showed for the district-led, voluntary programs that blended morning academics with afternoon camp activities; those who did come attended their program 75% of the time on average. The study saw a modest near-term benefit in mathematics that dissipated by the next fall but no causal evidence that the programs produced benefits in language arts, social emotional outcomes, or student attendance or grades during the school year.
Among the attendance hurdles identified in the study: “A prevailing attitude that summer programs should be and are more relaxed than the school year, allowing for dropping in and out of the summer session; a need for students to care for younger siblings at home; changes to family plans and vacations; student dislike of the program, which could be related to bullying or fighting among students, or to competing opportunities, which could be related to observing activities of friends and neighbors, who were not in the program.”
“Summer school could provide an opportunity to mitigate some of the learning loss, with the emphasis on some,” said Ed Chang, executive director of the nonprofit reform group redefinED Atlanta. “There are probably gaps in learning that have widened during the pandemic, but the reality is these gaps were there before the pandemic. It is going to take years to address, and summer school is only one piece of the pie.”
Others share Chang’s call for long-term plans.
“For us, summer school is just one part of the solution,” said Cliff Jones, Fulton County Schools chief academic officer. “We are looking at a three-year runway to address this, of which summer school is a part, but so is extended time during the school year, afterschool and Saturdays and high-dosage small groups during the day.”
Fulton revamped its summer approach to be more appealing, offering more hands-on learning and fun activities. The middle school program will resemble camp with robotics and STEM activities. “This pandemic has a fatigue aspect to it, but we are going to need something for kids to do this summer,” said Jones. “Parents want their kids involved in high-quality programming and we are going to provide that.”
Fulton hopes to enroll 30,000 students this summer at 35 sites. It has 2,000 thus far, but the deadline is May 28. Fulton offered teachers a $1,000 incentive to sign up for a summer school session and now has more than 1,000 ready to go.
As to those parents who maintain kids need a breather from academics, a teacher said, “What the readers of AJC need to know is that in some cases, we have students who have had a break for the past 13 months. I have students who have not turned in an assignment all semester despite repeated attempts to contact students and parents. How can they be ready to move to the next grade level? Would they even be prepared to repeat the current grade after such a prolonged gap in learning? For many of us in education, the challenges in teaching this year have been exhausting. The fact that some teachers are willing to give of their time this summer should say a lot.”