Ever since public schools reopened for older students in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last month, Shannon Luper's granddaughter has been eager to get out of the house.
The local roller-skating rink, a Friday night spot for middle-schoolers, shut down during the pandemic. But Maria Dan, 14, adopted other pursuits, like tending to the school garden on weekends and delivering groceries for a local mobile food initiative.
"Anything they can do in the community that has them seeing people and being with their friends tends to motivate them," Luper said.
Tulsa Public Schools and other districts are embracing that idea this summer with enhanced plans for programs in June, July and August that mix academics with play and in-person socialization – something millions of students have missed this past year.
Limited in-person instruction has led to higher absences, more disruptions and widespread signs of reduced learning, especially for the most disadvantaged students. But with new federal money to support reopening buildings and extended learning, districts and cities are hustling to spur academic, social and emotional recovery this summer.
New plans include free full-day camps at schools, academic lessons shared across states, elaborate experiential projects, and internships for older students. In Washington, D.C., teens who need additional credits can even get paid to take summer classes. The city's summer youth jobs program will allow some students to work part of the day and attend classes while still earning a paycheck, city officials said.
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"Summer school has usually been an afterthought," said Steven Wilson, founder and CEO of Cadence Learning, a new national summer school program that partners with local schools to help teachers deliver vetted, high-quality lessons. "It can be done intentionally, and well."
Summer programs proven to boost skills feature substantial reading and math practice, well-trained teachers and at least a half a year of careful planning, according to a 2018 review by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
It's unclear whether districts can deliver that, given the turbulence of managing a pandemic year.
"Getting the logistics of summer programs right matters, because it makes the difference between using or losing precious instructional minutes," said Heather Schwartz, a RAND researcher who led the report.
If you build it, will they come?
Historically, summer school attendance is low because it's not mandatory, and middle-class students generally benefit more than low-income students, research has shown.
That's why proponents are leaning into a summer learning makeover – and they have the cash to do it. As part of the federal relief package signed into law in March, more than $1.2 billion of the $129 billion for public schools is flagged for summer and extended-learning programs.
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In Tulsa, summer programs in previous years cost $2 million to $3 million and might have featured a half-day program at some schools. This year, Tulsa expects to spend $10 million to $15 million on many full-day summer camps at schools in July.
For elementary and middle schools, academic, social and emotional learning time will be followed by physical activities, led by community partners and individuals. In the afternoon, teachers will lead experiential projects in areas including engineering and social justice.
"The goal is lots of opportunities for students to accelerate their learning, to catch up on foundational literacy and numeracy skills, and to reconnect with their friends," said Paula Shannon, Tulsa's deputy superintendent.
Camps at the high schools will focus on recovering credits. Some teens may earn those by working as a student intern at the middle and elementary schools, Shannon said.
In a district of more than 32,000 students, only about 2,000 have pre-registered for summer school so far, officials said.
Shannon Luper, the grandmother of Maria, says full-day school camps in July is a great idea. Despite having straight A's all year, Maria plans to attend, along with her friends, Luper said.
"I’m glad they’re trying to keep them connected," Luper said. "The more that happens throughout the summer, you won’t have such a challenge when school starts again in fall."
Parents elsewhere are more skeptical.
Carolyn Corbran, mother of a kindergarten student in Montclair, New Jersey, isn't convinced her district will work out details for summer school in time. Montclair isn't opening for in-person instruction until April 12.
After a difficult year of remote learning, Corbran said, her son will do better in a traditional summer camp where he can run around outside all day.
"As much as I want him to be improving his academic skills, we can do that ourselves, and we’ll just let him be a kid this summer," Corbran said.
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Districts doubling and tripling spending on summer learning
Various national and local reports suggest students nationwide have slid in math and reading progress this year, and low-income and minority students have fallen more sharply than their more affluent peers.
In Los Angeles, only 1 in 3 middle and high school students were on grade level in reading and math as of December. And 20% of seniors in the class of 2021 will not graduate unless they quickly make up missing credits, according to a new report by Great Public Schools Now, a progressive California nonprofit that is sometimes critical of Los Angeles' public schools.
"That's when students are in danger of dropping out – when the recovery becomes too large to close with summer opportunities and weekend opportunities," said Jeimee Estrada-Miller, an adjunct instructor at University of Southern California who worked on the report.
Several states already have required or urged districts to intervene.
Indiana lawmakers were set to vote on a $150 million grant program to fund expanded summer learning opportunities. Indianapolis, home of the state's largest district, got a jump with private grants to plan a summer learning program for all students in the county, including 11 districts plus charter schools and private schools, according to the Indianapolis Star.
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Districts are already announcing plans to spend the additional money – and racing to develop the specifics before traditional terms end.
South Carolina’s largest district, Greenville Public Schools, is pouring $7.5 million into summer school for all grade levels, amounting to $15 million over two years, according to the Greenville News, part of the USA TODAY Network.
In Florida, Palm Beach County public school leaders say almost 52,000 of their 170,000 students need significantly more help in reading and math after a year of mostly remote learning. The district plans to spend an additional $8 million on summer support, more than triple what it spent before.
In Texas, San Antonio school leaders are planning to spend at least $4 million on a two-week academic and social program in July, before the new school year starts – double the cost of the program in the past.
"Our students need significant social and emotional support. Many need therapeutic counseling, and many need the routine of school," said Patti Salzmann, San Antonio's chief academic officer.
Like 'a mini school year'
A good summer school program can help students make a lot of progress quickly. But the ingredients are a careful blend that usually take months to develop, experts say.
Teachers must be trained, buses need to run on time, and materials need to be high-quality, said Schwartz, the RAND Corp. researcher who studied summer programs in five large cities before the pandemic.
Some of those districts lost up to half of their intended instructional minutes because of missing materials, summer transportation hiccups, poorly timed staff training and frequent class interruptions, she said.
Good summer programs should last at least five weeks, with at least two hours of reading and one to two hours of math instruction each day. And teachers shouldn't have to write their own lessons, she said.
That's where Cadence Learning, an emerging national nonprofit, comes in. Developed as the National Summer School Initiative, it kicked off last summer to provide structured math and literacy lessons to thousands of students at schools in multiple states.
Leaders recruited master teachers already adept at instructing virtually to record five weeks worth of model online lessons with their own students, in grades three through eight, complete with PowerPoint slides and other materials.
The local teachers then used the model lessons as a guide, and they could lean on the master teachers for one-on-one coaching after hours. Last summer the program was free; this year schools will pay about $50 per student.
"It was a professional example, specifically tied to virtual instruction," said Lorena Chavez, executive director of Hawking STEAM Charter School, with campuses in San Diego and Chula Vista, California.
"It gave teachers a preview of where a kid might get stuck," she added.
Whether it was summer school or other factors, most students at Hawking were not too far behind when the year kicked off virtually again in fall 2020, Chavez said. The school has operated remotely all year because of high coronavirus cases in low-income communities. Most students have logged in and engaged every day, which leaders took as an encouraging sign.
But by this spring, reading and math growth stalled, according to progress test results – especially for seventh and eighth graders.
"It's bad," Chavez said.
That's why Chavez is determined to host summer school in person, with academic materials and support again from Cadence Learning. The school will develop its own enrichment programs around that.
The program will be voluntary, and if more students sign up than teachers, Hawking will hire substitutes, Chavez said. She expects at least 350 students to participate.
"We know where our holes are now," she said. "We just have to fill them."
Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer school changes amid COVID: Federal money may aid learning loss