Summer school is key to help students recover COVID losses. Here’s what Fort Worth plans

·9 min read

With weeks left before summer break begins, the Fort Worth school district is beefing up its summer programs to help students who have fallen behind during the pandemic.

The district will partner with a coalition of community organizations led by Read Fort Worth to operate its summer learning program. Officials say those partnerships will help the district thread literacy instruction into all summer classes and provide staff to teach summer classes at a time when many of the district’s teachers are exhausted.

Experts say this summer represents a make-or-break time for districts looking to help students make up ground academically and begin to recover socially and emotionally from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they also say that effort will require high-quality programming in the summers to come.

“We can’t look at this as a one-summer solution, and I think the research is pretty clear about that,” said Jennifer Peck, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Children and Youth.

Partners help Fort Worth build summer school

The district’s summer school program runs from June 23 to July 22. It will include four-hour sessions Monday through Thursday with in-person and virtual options.

The coalition includes several partner organizations, including the YMCA of Metropolitan Fort Worth, Camp Fire and Clayton Youth Enrichment, as well as the city of Fort Worth. Clint Bond, a spokesman for the school district, said many of those organizations have helped the district with summer school in the past. This year, the district will work with employees from those groups to weave literacy instruction into every piece of the district’s summer programming, he said. The district will train those staffers so the instruction students receive aligns with what they do in school during the school year, he said.

David Saenz, the district’s chief innovation officer, said during an April 27 meeting of the district’s Board of Trustees that the district’s summer learning program would be open to all students, but would be designed to support those with the greatest needs. The program will focus on math and reading, he said, but social and emotional learning will be embedded throughout the program.

At the elementary level, the program will be designed around a summer camp culture, with hands-on activities throughout the day, Saenz said. At the middle school level, the district will prioritize students who have failed math or reading and make remaining seats available to any student who is interested.

High school students who failed two or more end-of-course exams will be automatically enrolled in summer school at their home campuses, Saenz said. Those who failed courses and end-of-course exams in the same subject areas will be required to attend summer school in person, he said. As in years past, the district will also offer a virtual option at the high school level for classes without end-of-course exams, electives and advanced courses, he said.

District officials plan to use federal stimulus money to pay for the program. The district is in line to receive $261.6 million in CARES Act funding, with $174.4 million of that being delivered initially. Districts are required to use at least 20% of their allocation for evidence-based programs to help students make up ground they lost academically during the pandemic. Bond said district officials are still working out plans for how to allocate stimulus funding.

Districts have three years to spend money they receive through the CARES Act. At the April meeting, Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner said that timeline means the district can put together a multi-year plan to catch students up, not only academically but socially and emotionally.

Scribner said the 2021-22 school year will be “a year of recovery” for the district, and other districts nationwide, as they navigate out of the pandemic and help students make up for incomplete learning this year.

In a survey district officials fielded this spring, only 614 teachers, or about 21% of teachers who responded, said they were interested in teaching summer school this year either in person or online. Saenz noted during the April trustees meeting that only about half the teachers in the district had responded to the survey. Officials think there are more teachers in the district who may be willing to teach summer school but haven’t come forward yet, he said.

Karen Molinar, the district’s deputy superintendent, said the district will offer teachers the option of teaching summer school. But teachers are exhausted, she said. By partnering with other organizations, she said, the district will have enough staff to cover summer school while giving teachers who don’t want to work the chance to take a break.

Enrichment activities can strengthen summer programs

Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the nonprofit National Summer Learning Association, said this summer matters more than most to help struggling students make up ground and get ready for the next school year. So it’s more important than ever that school districts get their summer programming right, Dworkin told journalists last week during a virtual conference held by the Education Writers Association.

Summer school has a reputation for being punitive, for taking place only in school buildings and for being academic-only, he said. A good summer learning program is none of those things, he said. Districts may need to make summer learning mandatory this year to undo the academic damage of the pandemic, he said, but they should aim to make the experience so fun and exciting that students want to be there. Districts should also get students out of the classroom as much as possible and into nature or educational places like museums and zoos, he said. And although reading and math are important, effective summer learning programs also include arts, health and fitness and social and emotional support, he said.

When summer school begins, teachers will need to bear in mind that their students have been through a traumatic experience, Dworkin said. Teachers can’t just dive into math and reading without checking in to see how students are doing socially and emotionally, he said. The challenges are amplified in schools with high concentrations of Black and Hispanic students, who have been hit hardest during the pandemic, he noted.

Schools may need to have counselors and social workers available during summer school to help students who are having problems, Dworkin said. Teachers and students may be eager to get back to normal, he said, but it’s important to remember that they haven’t been through a normal experience.

Many school leaders who have spent the past year managing a crisis have had to scramble to put summer learning programs together, with just weeks left before the end of the school year. But districts have three years to spend their stimulus money, which allows leaders to think about summer learning programs as multi-year commitments, Dworkin said. He’d like to see more districts build summer school into the year-round planning they do for the rest of the school year. With a year to plan, districts ought to be able to offer stronger programs next summer, he said.

Multi-year approach is critical for summer school

Experts say districts should take a multi-year approach in planning summer school. In a report released last year by the RAND Corporation, researchers concluded that students who attended summer school for two consecutive years reaped bigger benefits than those who attended one.

The report looked at students who enrolled in summer programs in five districts: Dallas; Boston; Pittsburgh; Rochester, New York; and Duval County, Florida. After one summer, students who enrolled in summer school and attended regularly showed some progress in math, but no gains in reading or social and emotional learning. But high-attending students who participated in two years of summer school showed progress in reading, math and social and emotional learning.

Researchers recommended that urban districts consider voluntary summer school programs as a part of their efforts to help low-achieving students succeed. Ideally, those programs would be five or six weeks long, with no less than three hours of academic instruction per day, researchers said. They also suggested districts focus on strong attendance, since summer learning programs were most effective for students who attended them consistently.

Peck, the Partnership for Children and Youth president, said a fun, engaging approach is a key feature of successful summer learning programs. If districts want their summer programs to be effective, it isn’t enough to offer high-quality academic instruction, Peck said. They need to give students a reason to show up. The most effective summer learning programs feel more like a summer camp than school, she said. They pair an academic component with fun enrichment activities that keep students engaged and make them excited about showing up every day.

Traditional part-day remedial summer school programs aren’t effective even during a normal year, Peck said. Students aren’t likely to show up for summer programs that only focus on academics unless those programs are mandatory, she said. That’s even more true this year, when students are exhausted from an unusually stressful year, she said.

Like Fort Worth, many districts across the country have looked to partner with outside organizations in their communities for summer offerings this year, Peck said. Groups that already provide after-school programs, like public libraries and local branches of the Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA, make obvious and effective partners, she said. But some districts have also partnered with other agencies and organizations like state parks and national forests, she said.

Districts might also consider partnering with private summer camps, Peck said. Those camps are often too expensive for many families to afford, but they generally offer a limited number of scholarships for low-income children. Districts that can’t offer summer learning programs on their own could work with those camps to expand their scholarship programs, she said.

Those partnerships may be born of necessity, but Peck said they give districts exciting opportunities. Not only do they connect students with programs school districts couldn’t offer on their own, Peck said, they also help expand districts’ capacity. During a normal year, school districts would hire their own teachers to staff summer school. But this year, most teachers are exhausted, and many are considering leaving the profession altogether, she said. When districts partner with other community organizations, those groups’ employees can help staff those programs, she said.

As summer draws closer, it’s critical that school districts plan to offer learning programs that keep students engaged and give them the academic and social support they need, Peck said.

“We know it works, and we know it’s what kids are going to need,” Peck said.