LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County's summer school is about to grow.
The school district has added 1,820 seats to its programs, with a focus on helping low-income children avoid learning losses associated with the break.
"We are trying to create opportunities for kids … so when they come back to school in the fall they're not having to play catch up," superintendent Kurt Browning said.
The $1.3 million Summer Learning Expedition, funded with federal Title I grant money, will target students who struggle academically in all grade levels. Students will attend the courses free of charge and will have access to transportation and meals.
Principals should have already begun sending parents invitations for their children to enroll.
"They're making the full-court press to make sure the kids that need to be there are aware the program exists," Browning said.
Half of the new seats are in elementary schools, with a focus on the lowest grades.
Five Title I schools will begin offering six weeks of foundational reading skills lessons for kindergarteners. All Title I schools will provide reading instruction for first-graders and focus on math for second-graders.
The topics were based on student data collected throughout the year, said Vanessa Hilton, director of teaching and learning. Planners found where children struggled the most, and then created new lessons to assist them, she said.
Hilton stressed that the district worked to ensure the materials will be interesting for the children, with an emphasis on projects and critical thinking.
"This is about reaching kids, so there is increased ownership of learning as time goes on," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said.
The district's annual third-grade reading camp will continue but with new materials and heightened attention to Common Core standards such as answering questions using proof from passages.
With so many more children in the elementary schools, Browning said, the district also plans to keep school libraries staffed for children to get books and materials. He expects that effort to increase interest in reading during the summer.
Several studies have shown that students lose academic knowledge over the summer, with low-income children more at risk for losses than others. The National Summer Learning Association says that more than half of the achievement gap between low- and higher-income children can be attributed to unequal access to summer learning opportunities.
The district will emphasize credit recovery in the middle and high schools, adding hours and teachers to what previously has been a 10-day offering.
Hilton noted that many students who need the program are behind in more classes than they could complete in the two-week period. That's why the district is extending the session.
At the same time, Browning added, the district has taken steps to improve the course materials and lessons, to avoid past criticisms that students who failed a semester-long class turned around and earned a credit in a few days.
"It's not a three-day deal," Hilton said. "It is much more rigorous for kids."
The schools also will offer a more blended approach to the classes, with students able to access their work from home. This is not to be confused with virtual courses for acceleration, though. Students still must go through Pasco eSchool or Florida Virtual School for those credits.
In fact, Pasco's only other expansion of summer programs in the past five years has come in its eSchool. Larson said she expects that growth to continue.
The district also plans to continue its migrant summer school program, adding a handful of seats, and its Pasco Environmental Adventure Camp Experience for selected fifth- and eighth-graders, along with high school biology students.
Browning suggested the district's most ambitious summer effort could be its smallest, a STEAM (that's science, technology, engineering, arts and math) pilot program for 45 third- and fourth-graders from Fox Hollow, Schrader and Gulf Highlands elementary schools.
That program will allow the district to test curriculum and materials for future STEAM initiatives, such as a planned magnet at Sanders Elementary.
Hilton said the connection of these subject areas is the wave of the future.
"It's pulling content together in a project-based way so that the students can really see all those contents work together in a meaningful way," she said. "It's really important. It is the way that life works."
Most summer programs begin in mid-June.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.