‘Herculean task’: Gwinnett rolls out expanded summer school

Gwinnett County Public Schools is providing free transportation to summer school this year for elementary and middle school students. AJC file photo

Gwinnett County Public Schools is providing free transportation to summer school this year for elementary and middle school students. AJC file photo

The Gwinnett County school district is preparing for summer school to more than triple in size this year, with a new strategy for bringing students up to speed that will stay in place for years as public education catches up from the coronavirus pandemic.

“This summer work is just the first of many volleys, if you will, that we’re going to have to throw at this,” said Clay Hunter, associate superintendent of curriculum and instructional support, recently to the school board.

School districts across metro Atlanta are drastically expanding summer programs to help close holes in student learning that the disruptive pandemic forced open.

Months — or in many cases, more than a year — of digital learning during the pandemic left thousands of students disengaged in Georgia’s largest school district. Compared to fall 2019, first-semester course failure rates increased across the board in Gwinnett County Public Schools, where 21% of high school students failed at least one core academic course in the fall, as well as 15% of middle school and 18% of elementary school students. Among high school seniors, 18% failed one or more course, potentially jeopardizing their graduation this spring.

In the classroom, teachers can tell when students seem distracted and can respond appropriately, but that is harder over a computer screen, Hunter said. And thousands of students fell entirely out of communication with their schools during the pandemic.

About a month into this academic year, when teachers and principals across Gwinnett saw the number of missing assignments, they expanded Saturday school, allowing students to come in and make up work. Failure rates for this school year will depend on how many students make a final push to submit missing work, he said.

An ad hoc team looking at achievement gaps predicted students will finish the school year with about 70% of the reading progress and 50% of the math they would have learned in a typical school year, said Lenie George, an assistant principal at Summerour Middle School and one of the team members.

Game plan changed

For low-income students, the gaps might be larger, he said. Schools should plan for students to return in August with 30% to 70% of this year’s learning unfinished, he said.

This summer, high school students can re-take up to two failed classes for free. Many career and technical education students can sign up for workshops or camps to practice on equipment rare in homes.

For younger students, the game plan has changed.

“This year, we have so many students across the academic spectrum,” Hunter said in a recent virtual information session. “There are all different types of needs that they have.”

So in place of remedial lessons, summer classes for elementary and middle school students will preview the next grade for three weeks. Teachers will focus on aspects of this year’s curriculum that are building blocks of future learning and use those to transition to next year’s lessons, Hunter said.

Two years ago, Gwinnett’s remedial summer school enrolled about 7,000 elementary and middle school students. This summer, based on the number of teachers available, more than 25,000 of those students can sign up for in-person summer school.

“This is a Herculean task that we’re pulling off here,” said Bernard Watson, the district’s community relations director, during the information session.

Elementary schools will offer math and language arts. Middle schools will add social studies and science. Summer school students will also get fine arts and social and emotional learning, Hunter said. Support will be available for special education and English as a Second Language students.

For the first time, the school district is hiring education majors from Georgia Gwinnett College to work as tutors and classroom helpers, Hunter said. The college students will undergo background checks and the school district will train them in lesson plans and instructional methods, he said.

Students will take quizzes throughout summer school and their results will be given to their teachers next school year, Hunter said.

“We’ll know exactly where that student is and begin to provide support the first day of school,” he said.

Gwinnett is offering the summer program at all schools except a few that are undergoing major construction, Hunter said. Students from those schools will be sent to other campuses. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the school district will keep the same public safety rules from this academic year in place.

Gwinnett will provide breakfast, lunch and transportation to elementary and middle school students for free, paid for by the federal American Rescue Plan.

Schools are in the process of inviting the students who need the most support to in-person summer school. The district will roll out digital versions of all the lessons for families who prefer virtual summer school. Students who are not invited to in-person classes for lack of space can still participate digitally, Hunter said.

Monitors will be on hand during digital summer school for tech support. They will reach out when students are not completing lessons, Hunter said.

For incoming kindergartners, Gwinnett will hold a three-week Rising K Academy that will emphasize classroom skills and academic expectations of 5-year-olds, Hunter said.

To continue closing gaps throughout next school year and beyond, the districtwide learning loss team recommended continuing small class sizes, an accelerated curriculum and a large-scale tutoring program with community partners.

“We want to think about what we have for the next three years,” said Assistant Superintendent Donna Ledford, the team’s facilitator. “Our goal is, of course, to close all these gaps.”