Students experience a summer like no other as schools race to catch up

·14 min read

This article about summer school was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

For millions of students, this is a summer like no other in the history of American public education. The last day of the school year was followed by a brief pause before classes started again. That’s because districts across the country expanded summer school — and in some cases required it — to make up for a year of disrupted classes during the pandemic.

The stakes are particularly high for students who have lost the most during months of remote learning. Educators say they are especially concerned about students living in poverty, English-language learners and students with disabilities. But kids of all ages — from kindergarten to high school — suffered academically and emotionally during months of isolation. Many school districts want to help them catch up this summer so they’re ready when school resumes in the fall.

“This summer is so important to help young people reconnect with friends, peers and educators after such a difficult year,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a message supporting National Summer Learning Week, an initiative in mid-July sponsored by the nonprofit organization National Summer Learning Association.

Research on summer school before the pandemic showed slim evidence that it helps improve reading and math scores. Still, educators across the country are hoping this year’s efforts — from a push to close early learning gaps in Texas to a summer program in Oregon that helps kids who are learning English — will make a difference.

Many of these programs got a boost from more than $1 billion in federal funds dedicated to summer under the American Rescue Plan. That windfall enabled some districts to add more students than they have enrolled in years past and others to experiment with new programs to help with pandemic learning loss.

“As a country, every single child is going to be behind,” said Jaclyn Forkner, a special education teacher leading a class of third through sixth grade summer school students at Holcomb Elementary School in Oregon City, Oregon. “So I’m more on the side of: ‘Is everyone OK mentally? Socially?’”

The enrichment summer school program at her school is helping with that, she thinks. “It’s awesome,” she said. “They’re having fun.”

Here’s a look at how the summer is going for students around the country.

What English learners need most is to love school again

OREGON CITY, Ore. — Aylin Garcia Rosas, 9, and her 8-year-old cousin were crouched on the floor in the gymnasium at Holcomb Elementary School chattering in Spanish about how to get a Lego figure to stay on the car they were building.

The cousins are two of the 465 students enrolled in a brand-new, free summer program for students entering kindergarten through eighth grade in Oregon City, about 30 minutes’ drive south of Portland.

Holcomb Elementary in Oregon City, Ore. (Lillian Mongeau / The Hechinger Report)
Holcomb Elementary in Oregon City, Ore. (Lillian Mongeau / The Hechinger Report)

“It’s not really summer school,” explained Finn McDonough, 7, as he worked on a color-by-number project after finishing breakfast, which is offered free to all students here. “It’s summer camp.”

Stephanie Phelps, a summer school administrator, laughed when she heard Finn’s assessment and explained that academic skills are integrated into every activity, even if the kids don’t notice. More than 50 percent of those enrolled in the six-week program are English-language learners; 13 of them, including Aylin and her cousin, are classified as migrant students, meaning their parents are migrant agricultural workers, and they get two additional hours of math and reading in the afternoon. When asked about the afternoon, Aylin echoed Finn, insisting the group just played games.

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Having some fun at school after a particularly brutal year is going to be key to long-term academic success for English learners, said Patricia Gándara, a professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“These kids have fallen behind more than other children,” Gándara said. “They need to be doing things with other children, talking with other children, and not being given worksheets to just remediate.”

Most English-learner students are the children of immigrants, a population that was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, Gándara said. Immigrant workers were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic, and many are front-line workers.

About 15 minutes north of Oregon City, 80 students at Lot Whitcomb Elementary, in the North Clackamas School District, are spending four weeks in a dual-language summer program, reading Spanish-language stories, practicing math skills and talking to each other — a lot.

A child works on a kindergarten writing exercise during a dual-language summer program at Lot Whitcomb Elementary School in Milwaukie, Ore (Lillian Mongeau / The Hechinger Report)
A child works on a kindergarten writing exercise during a dual-language summer program at Lot Whitcomb Elementary School in Milwaukie, Ore (Lillian Mongeau / The Hechinger Report)

Since online classes made it hard for students to converse, this summer “our push is to work on discourse,” said Jenica Beecher, the English language development specialist for the district, which serves around 17,000 students.

The dual-language summer program at Lot Whitcomb isn’t new, but enrollment doubled and the day lengthened by several hours in 2021, said summer principal Brittany López. Districtwide, North Clackamas is serving 3,700 students in several summer programs, more than twice its typical enrollment, according to a spokesperson.

Oregon invested $195.6 million in summer school grants this year, requiring that districts provide 25 percent of the total cost for their programs. Some districts used federal emergency relief funds to cover their portion.

Back at Holcomb, Aylin used a second rubber band to strap her plastic Lego figure more securely in place and hurried out to the test track set up in the hallway.

After she failed twice to get the car through the step stool that was serving as a tunnel, her cousin, who arrived in Oregon City only a few months ago and still speaks little English, took over. He lined the car up carefully at the top of the ramp and let go.

It sailed right through.

—Lillian Mongeau

Aylin Garcia Rosa, 9, attempts to get the car she built with her cousin down a ramp and through a
Aylin Garcia Rosa, 9, attempts to get the car she built with her cousin down a ramp and through a

A push to close early learning gaps in Texas

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — On a Wednesday morning in late June, 12 kids were scattered around Rebecca Young’s classroom, tucked away in the back of River Bend Elementary on one of the last days of a new intensive summer school program. Four children sat across a table from Young, with whiteboards positioned in front of them and markers in their hands.

The word “fit” was written on each board. “Who can change the word ‘fit’ to ‘bit’?” Young asked, slowly enunciating each word. “Buh, buh,” one child said out loud, trying to figure out which letter he needed to write. One by one, each child erased the “f” on the whiteboard and wrote a “b.”

“Which sound is different?” Young asked.

Rebecca Young works on phonics with several rising first grade students during a summer school program at River Bend Elementary in College Station, Texas. (Jackie Mader / The Hechinger Report)
Rebecca Young works on phonics with several rising first grade students during a summer school program at River Bend Elementary in College Station, Texas. (Jackie Mader / The Hechinger Report)

While Young led the small group of rising first graders through more practice with phonics, four other students were sitting at desks, playing a math game on their iPads. Two students sat in the corner practicing writing sentences, while a third sat on the ground with a colorful worksheet, identifying pictures and words with the digraph “th.” Another student was walking around the room with a clipboard, immersed in a “letter search.”

While this type of individualized learning would normally take up just a small part of a typical school day, it is the whole day in College Station Independent School District’s summer school program. The program was designed after educators and administrators in this East Texas district saw gaps emerging in elementary students’ reading and math scores last fall.

Although the district opened for in-person classes last August, some students stayed home and opted for online learning, and others were interrupted by random periods of quarantine due to exposure to the coronavirus, said Penny Tramel, chief academic officer. Tramel and her team, who in many prior years had never offered summer school, realized an intensive array of summer offerings was the best way to try to catch kids up on foundational skills in reading and math.

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Almost immediately after school ended in late May, the district launched a four-week summer program, funded with federal money, which targeted students who needed the most help with math and reading skills to move to the next grade level. For four hours a day, five days a week, classes capped at 12 students met for intensive lessons at three elementary schools, cycling through small-group time with a teacher and independent work targeting learning needs.

To lighten the load for teachers, the district created the curriculum and provided lesson plans and materials, including everything needed for each student’s independent activities. The district plans to follow up with a two-week camp before school begins in mid-August that will help jump-start the year for the lowest-performing students, and educators say they hope the program becomes a staple beyond the pandemic.

“I think that Covid has really highlighted the need for programs like this in general,” said Heather Sherman, assistant principal of River Bend Elementary and principal of the summer school program. “Even without the pandemic, there’s always that need for continual learning to prevent the regression that occurs.”

—Jackie Mader

A rising first grader creates numbers using
A rising first grader creates numbers using

Playing catch-up in districts that were already struggling

BELZONI, Miss. — Nechia Coleman noticed 8-year-old Donylen Bullock staring down at two neatly arranged rows of tiles. He had organized them by color, and she noticed he lacked enough pieces to keep the pattern going. Coleman, a veteran educator at Ida Greene Elementary in the Mississippi Delta, brought over a jar and scooped out a few more.

Moments like this were what Donylen longed for during the past year he spent learning remotely.

His mother, Jelisia Neal, had her eye on the year ahead when she enrolled Donylen in the five-week summer school session, where he would have at least an hour of reading instruction each day starting in June.

Donylen Bullock works on multiplication with his teacher, Nechia Coleman, during summer school at Ida Green Elementary in Belzoni, Miss., on June 30, 2021. (Brad Vest / for NBC News)
Donylen Bullock works on multiplication with his teacher, Nechia Coleman, during summer school at Ida Green Elementary in Belzoni, Miss., on June 30, 2021. (Brad Vest / for NBC News)

Sometime next spring, Donylen, along with thousands of third graders in Mississippi, may be required to take a mandatory reading test that will widely determine whether they’re allowed to move up to fourth grade. More than one-fifth of third graders at Ida Greene were held back at the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

Other education statistics in Humphreys County are also alarming. Fewer than 20 percent of students in schools there were considered proficient in math or English language arts, according to data from the 2018-2019 school year.

State education officials took notice. For the past two years, the community’s schools and those in neighboring Yazoo County have been overseen by state-appointed superintendent Jermall Wright because of low academic performance. It could be years before Mississippi agrees there’s enough improvement to allow the county to run education locally again.

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Before the pandemic, students who failed a course were the ones enrolled in summer school, but this year education leaders in Humphreys and Yazoo determined eligibility would not rest on report cards. A fourth grader reading on a third- or second-grade level would be asked to enroll — regardless of what grades they brought home. The district is financing the effort through federal Covid-19 relief funds allocated to school systems.

While projections vary on how the pandemic has affected educational progress, researchers have consistently found that Black and Hispanic children and kids living in poverty are more vulnerable to falling behind.

A student makes his down a hallway during summer school at Ida Green Elementary. (Brad Vest / for NBC News)
A student makes his down a hallway during summer school at Ida Green Elementary. (Brad Vest / for NBC News)

Nearly all the children attending Ida Greene are Black. And many families in the area — where 37 percent of residents live below the poverty line — suffered financial hardships before Covid-19 devastated the Mississippi Delta.

“For us, our kids didn’t suffer learning loss necessarily because of the pandemic,” Wright said. “They’ve been suffering learning loss for a while, for a number of reasons. All the pandemic really did was to show us not just how far our students were behind, but exactly how far behind we were in terms of being prepared to meet their needs.”

While Donylen made the principal’s honors list, the 8-year-old has asthma and his mother felt more at ease with virtual learning during the school year. He seemed to follow along OK. But Neal would review his classwork and see questions he skipped over.

“We’re playing catch-up,” she said.

While Donylen liked the lunch his mom made and his online art class, he felt like it took more of an effort to get Coleman’s attention. He had never met her in-person, but she seemed nice. If one of his classmates needed a crayon, she would produce one. He wanted that, too.

And for a few weeks, Donylen had it.

“I like that I can meet new people and can finally see Ms. Coleman in person,” he said, “and I like math.”

—Bracey Harris

A student uses tiles while working on a multiplication problem at Ida Green Elementary. (Brad Vest / for NBC News)
A student uses tiles while working on a multiplication problem at Ida Green Elementary. (Brad Vest / for NBC News)

Summer programs are a lifeline for students with disabilities

Danielle Eddins spent more than a decade as a preschool teacher, but nothing had prepared her for the experience of overseeing the education of two of her sons this past year. Her 6-year-old, who has autism and an intellectual disability, lost interest in what was happening on his laptop screen almost as soon as she powered on the device each morning.

“He would be staring at the computer, but there was no cognitive connection, no understanding that, ‘Hey, I’m in school,’” she said. Her 4-year-old, who has a speech delay, had trouble paying attention, too.

Danielle Eddins and her oldest son, who struggled with remote learning during the pandemic. (Danielle Eddins)
Danielle Eddins and her oldest son, who struggled with remote learning during the pandemic. (Danielle Eddins)

The boys’ sessions with teachers and therapists often overlapped, and Eddins struggled to manage them while also caring for her 19-month-old son.

Soon Eddins, whose older children attend Boston Public Schools, noticed changes in her oldest boy. He stopped responding to physical gestures, lost the few words he’d started to say and grew moodier and more frustrated.

Then Eddins learned her boys had qualified for “extended school year,” a federally mandated summer program for eligible students with disabilities. This year, unlike last, the program would take place in person. Eddins was encouraged, particularly for her oldest son.

“It’s important for kids to get that social interaction, especially having autism,” she said. “I need him to be socialized around kids his own age, even if he doesn’t play with them.”

Around the country, many parents of students with disabilities are counting on summer learning to help their kids recover skills they lost during the pandemic. These students often found remote education particularly challenging and in some cases went without services such as occupational and physical therapies and the socialization that comes from school.

But while some districts are stepping up their summer offerings to kids with disabilities, others are struggling to effectively serve these students amid staffing shortages and other challenges.

Related: Even the loss of an entire school year may not be grounds for holding kids back a grade, according to some early childhood experts.

“The biggest problem that we’re seeing right now across the board, which is not specific to students with disabilities, is who is actually going to run these summer programs,” said Valerie Williams, director of government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “Teachers are completely wiped out and burned out from everything they’ve had to manage and juggle for the past year.”

Some districts have delayed summer school for kids with disabilities. Others have reduced the number of kids served. Still others are struggling to accommodate kids with less severe disabilities, who don’t qualify for extended school year programs, in general summer offerings.

“Instances I see where students are being offered more than what they had last year, or more than what they had pre-Covid, are very rare,” said Cynthia Moore, founder of Advocate Tip of the Day, which supports families of kids with disabilities in Massachusetts.

Danielle Eddins' two older sons are participating in summer programming for kids with disabilities. Here, her middle child, who is 4, sits beside her 19-month-old son. (Danielle Eddins)
Danielle Eddins' two older sons are participating in summer programming for kids with disabilities. Here, her middle child, who is 4, sits beside her 19-month-old son. (Danielle Eddins)

Eddins considered herself lucky that her sons qualified for five weeks of extended school year programming. But she wasn’t leaving anything to chance. On their first day, July 12, she sent them on the bus with printouts of their Individualized Education Programs, personalized learning plans for students with disabilities. She called the school multiple times to check in. Over FaceTime, her 4-year-old’s teacher showed him playing with other kids. “He made friends right away,” she said. Her 6-year-old did well, too.

“So far, so good,” Eddins said. “I am hopeful that this summer will be good for both my boys. … I am not going to survive, not one more remote situation. It was so difficult.”

—Caroline Preston

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