Metro Atlanta districts launch summer school programs

Kindergarten teacher Shiron Jelks goes over letters and their sounds with her students during the Atlanta Public Schools' Summer Academic Recovery Academy at Cascade Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Kindergarten teacher Shiron Jelks goes over letters and their sounds with her students during the Atlanta Public Schools' Summer Academic Recovery Academy at Cascade Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Thousands of students across metro Atlanta who just finished a pandemic school year riddled with disruptions will spend summer break back in class.

Local districts redesigned and expanded summer learning programs, hoping to help those who struggled academically or fell behind when lessons moved online.

Suddenly, summer school is in the spotlight.

“The learning loss from the pandemic is very real, and so this is an additional step that our district is taking in order to have those scholars go over those standards again that they did not meet with mastery,” said Tiffany Momon, principal of Cascade Elementary School.

Her southwest Atlanta school is one of 37 hosting Atlanta Public Schools’ Summer Academic Recovery Academy. Students brush up on math and literacy skills in the morning and engage in hands-on activities in the afternoon.

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Metro districts reported mixed success so far in filling their programs, some of which launched last week. While several fell short of ambitious enrollment projections, counts still surpassed prior years in some districts.

Some families aren’t ready to return in-person because of COVID-19 concerns and others are picking different options, said Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. He called this year’s numbers “very much a moving target.”

But the pandemic has shown how important it is to give every child access to a high-quality experience that combines academics and enrichment.

“Right now,” he said, summer learning “has moved from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have.”

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Cascade Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Shiron Jelks participates in a sing along lesson with her students during the Atlanta Public Schools' Summer Academic Recovery Academy at Cascade Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Cascade Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Shiron Jelks participates in a sing along lesson with her students during the Atlanta Public Schools' Summer Academic Recovery Academy at Cascade Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Summer learning

In a Cascade classroom, on the first day of APS’ summer program, kindergarteners danced to an alphabet song.

For the letter I, they shivered like they were covered in ice. For V, they played pretend violins.

Down the hall, second graders prepared to take a computerized assessment to gauge their reading and math skills. Four weeks from now, they’ll take it again to see how much they’ve learned.

Atlanta’s summer enrollment is less than half of what officials estimated. The district planned for 24,600 students learning online or in-person. After twice extending the registration deadline, 11,346 students signed up for the June session.

District officials consider it a win.

The numbers are about 33% higher than Atlanta’s 2019 summer program, pre-pandemic. And this year’s count represents nearly a third of the district’s traditional, non-charter school enrollment.

Interest is strong in lower elementary grades, where online learning proved challenging for young children, and in ninth grade, which can be a tough transition from middle to high school.

APS opened its summer program to all students but made an extra push to enroll those who are behind academically.

Thalise Perry, principal of Atlanta’s Miles Elementary School, said parents contacted her when they saw their children struggling with virtual lessons. Her summer numbers are up compared to other years.

“I think our parents saw more of a benefit for the academic recovery at this particular time,” she said.

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Second grade teacher Temica Cook interacts with her students during the Atlanta Public Schools' Summer Academic Recovery Academy at Cascade Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Second grade teacher Temica Cook interacts with her students during the Atlanta Public Schools' Summer Academic Recovery Academy at Cascade Elementary School in Atlanta on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Some families opted out.

Atlanta parent Wykeisha Howe said her children kept up with online classes so she didn’t think they needed to extend a stressful school year into the summer. Instead, her children will spend time reading and use online learning resources.

“It’s been a long, hard year for us,” she said. “We all needed this time to just relax a little.”

In the much-larger Cobb County School District, a little more than 10,000 students are signed up for summer programs, said Chief Academic Officer Jennifer Lawson.

Officials weren’t sure how many would enroll. The district had the staffing and resources to accommodate as many as three times that number.

“I think it’s fair to acknowledge that it has been a long year for everyone, and our families are no different,” Lawson said.

Cobb schools has several options for students who want to catch up or refresh their academic skills. Its virtual academy also offers a program that compresses a 16-week semester into a five-week summer term.

Fulton County Schools aimed to draw about 30,000 of the district’s 90,000 students to its program. By late May, with registration still open, 13,590 students had signed up.

That’s nearly double the number who participated in the summer of 2019. The district was still trying to hire teachers to staff the program as of early June.

Clayton County’s “KinderCamp,” an in-person program for youngsters about to enter kindergarten, reached its maximum capacity of 67 students.

But sign-ups were more sluggish for Clayton’s science and math camps, summer enrichment and advanced learning programs. About 3,355 students registered for those programs, about 40% less than anticipated, according to a district spokesman.

DeKalb County School District extended its summer registration deadline by nearly a month. By early June, 9,183 students had signed up.

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A few weeks before the June 14 launch, Gwinnett County Public Schools had nearly filled up its in-person summer session for elementary and middle school students.

The state’s largest district can serve 25,000 students in the three-week enrichment and acceleration program. More than 24,000 students had signed up, and the numbers were still climbing as the start date approached, said Clay Hunter, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Staff writers Kristal Dixon and Alia Malik contributed to this article.

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