Jun. 27—Students built solar ovens to cook s'mores as part of a unit on energy, designed water pollution prototypes and worked in a small group with a literacy teacher on blended letter combinations on a recent day at Mead Elementary.
About 230 elementary students, most from Mead plus a few from Lyons and area charter schools, are getting an extra four weeks of school through the St. Vrain Valley School District's Project Launch summer program.
"We know these kids, and we know each other and what works best," said Joe Ackerman, a fifth grade teacher at Mead who is teaching in the summer program along with two other Mead fifth grade teachers. "We want to support the students for next year."
He said the past school year, with most students moving between online and in-person learning, was especially challenging, especially because of its inconsistency.
"The children who are here are really benefiting from being in the classroom," he said. "We want to make it as authentic and as fun as possible. We don't want it to feel like a punishment."
Both the St. Vrain Valley and Boulder Valley school districts are offering expanded summer school programs in a bid to help students who fell behind during a pandemic year gain academic ground before fall.
St. Vrain's Project Launch, funded in part by federal coronavirus relief money, is operating at 14 school sites this month. St. Vrain piloted Project Launch in 2019, but the pandemic scuttled the program last summer.
Districtwide this summer, about 3,300 incoming first through sixth graders — about 25% of the total student population in those grades — are attending a full day of school, four days a week, for four weeks this summer. There's no cost to families, and breakfast, lunch and transportation are provided.
"We were amazed by the outpouring of interest," said Diane Lauer, assistant superintendent of priority programs. "It made us feel really good about providing this opportunity."
The district was awarded a $2.8 million, two-year state grant to collaborate with five smaller districts around the state on its K-5 summer literacy program. The award is part of the second round of grants from Colorado's Response, Innovation and Student Equity Fund, which is funded through federal coronavirus relief money.
The grant pays for the program at six St. Vrain elementary school sites, plus a half-day virtual program for students in LaunchEd, both this summer and next summer.
St. Vrain is covering the cost of the program at another eight elementary school sites, making it accessible to students districtwide. There's a similar program at the middle school level, with 75 students at each of the 12 schools, that's focused on math, literacy and STEM projects. And, for incoming sixth graders, the district this summer added an accelerated math option at each elementary site.
At the six elementary sites funded by the grant, St. Vrain also hired high school students in its P-TEACH program to assist teachers. The district plans to continue to work with the families at those sites next school year, as well as inviting the students to participate again next summer.
"The grant was really an opportunity for us to incubate some ideas and see if they would benefit all students," Lauer said.
To prepare for the program, the district used a short assessment in May to evaluate students' reading and math levels. That data, plus curriculum and materials, was provided to the teachers, who had four days to plan instruction. Each school site has a literacy teacher and special education teacher to support the classroom teachers.
The summer curriculum focuses on math and literacy, with teachers incorporating science and social studies concepts that students will learn in the fall into their lessons. With a full-day program, students also have a daily elective.
"We call it Project Launch because we want to launch our students into a successful next school year," Lauer said. "The curriculum blends knowledge and skills from the current year with concepts and vocabulary and skills for the upcoming year."
The Boulder Valley School District is offering a six-week summer program, also at no cost to families with free meals and transportation, that runs half-days, four days a week, with optional extended care for elementary students.
About 1,300 incoming first through ninth graders are enrolled at eight school sites — about double the number enrolled prepandemic. Four sites offer free extended care to 180 students that's funded by Impact on Education, while Broomfield is providing extended care to another 45 students.
District officials said demand for the program exceeded the available spots. Students who were significantly below grade level in math and literacy were given the first chance at enrolling in the summer program. The original plan was to cap enrollment at 1,000 elementary students and 250 middle school students, though the district added 50 more students as space was available in classrooms.
The district previously used a STEM focus for its summer program, but like St. Vrain is focusing on math and literacy this year. The curriculum also includes daily social and emotional lessons, while there's a counselor on call for the summer program and behavioral specialists at two school sites.
"We're trying to fill in the gaps in their learning," said Mary Jones, Boulder Valley's summer learning director.
Several teachers in both districts' programs — who generally describe the past year as the most difficult of their careers — said they kept teaching in the summer because they saw how much their students needed extra time.
"There is a lot of unfinished learning," said Erin Cameron, an English language development teacher teaching incoming third graders this summer at Boulder's Crest View Elementary. "It's imperative to have this program."
She spent the first few days establishing community, getting the technology running and teaching students their independent learning options. With most of the class working independently, she can work with students one-on-one and in small groups.
"What moves kids the most academically is intentional lessons in small groups," she said, adding it's important for her to hear each student read, not just rely on their previous assessment data.
Her personal goal for her students is to move each up one reading level.
At Indian Peaks Elementary in Longmont, about 142 students, or 60% of the school's population, enrolled in the summer program. All the students — and all but one teacher — in the summer program attend Indian Peaks during the school year.
"The kids had a week off and are right back with their teachers," said Indian Peaks Principal Kathi Jo Walder.
Fifth grade teacher Michael Botwinski said knowing the students is an advantage, especially for the many nonnative English-speaking students learning content and language simultaneously. Because his students already know and trust him, he said, he doesn't need to spend as much time building new relationships and can instead focus on the curriculum.
"The goal is to give them as much exposure to what's to come in the fall as possible, while including a review of what has been learned," he said. "What's truly amazing about our kids is that each and every one of them wants to learn and better themselves. It is so impressive to see such a strong work ethic every single day."
On a recent day, he taught a lesson on using descriptive language. Students previously chose a plant in the school garden to observe over the course of the four weeks and were writing descriptions of their plants. Along with writing, the project incorporates research on their plants, math to measure plant growth and studying plant life cycles.
To start writing, Botwinski asked students to read examples of descriptive writing about plants and find the adjectives. Then they wrote a paragraph as a class, looking up synonyms to expand their word choices.
They talked about other words for "floral," the definition of the word "citrus" and using adjectives to go beyond describing a flower's color. One student suggested that a pink Columbine gives her summer vibes, while another described a flower as "astonishing."
"This is my favorite part of writing, the talking part," he told the students. "Any of these phrases or adjectives that really talk to you about your plant, make sure you write them down."
In a neighboring class with incoming third graders, teacher Michelle Flippin worked with students on vowel sounds "ou," "ow" and "oo." Each day, she said, they focus on different vowel combinations, reading words, writing words, reading phrases and reading stories.
"Read the words in your brain, then everybody together out loud," she instructed as the class read through a list of "oo" words, writing each word on the top of their desks in marker before erasing it to the write the next one.
At Mead Elementary, Principal Betsy Ball said teachers want to give the program a summer camp feel along with working in math and literacy skills.
The program has an "around the world" theme, with teachers incorporating different countries into lessons. Students received "passports" and made suitcases in art to store papers, while each day starts with all-school movement. Along with art, students learn about design thinking in the school's "creation station" as an elective.
For one creation project, students learned about inventions from different countries to remove plastics from water, then worked in groups to design their own product. After drawing products on their iPads, they used cardboard, tape and other materials to build a prototype. They will test and refine the prototype, then write about its key features and display it in a gallery walk.
As they worked, several incoming fifth graders gave the summer program high marks.
Sophie Lynn said she learned online all last school year, making the summer program her reintroduction to in-person learning. After being online for a year, she said, her favorite part of summer school so far is recess.
Classmate Tony Wright said he's liked everything about the summer program.
"It's all fun," he said. "It's not really like school."
Selah Cunningham said she didn't want to sit home and miss seeing her friends.
"You forget everything over the summer," she said.
Added Kamryn Stone, "It helps you a lot more so you're not struggling next year."
Helen Barber, a first-year music teacher in Greeley last school year who's teaching incoming fourth graders in the Mead summer program, said her goals are supplementing what they learned during the school year, helping them become better students by keeping their excitement for learning going.
"It is summer," she said. "You can tell they feel it."
They've planted beans and other seedlings and went online to plan trips to big cities. To help them remember vocabulary words, she has them "mirror" her words and movements, using silly gestures like making ears with their hands for bison.
"We're getting back to that consistency of being in the classroom," she said.