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Summer school 2021 will be big, and hopefully better than usual

Educators know children need to catch up. But, after a grueling pandemic school year, they don’t want it to seem like a chore.
Pinellas County teacher Chelsea Massey, center, displays a bird feeder for third-grade students at 74th Street Elementary School during the first day of the district's Summer Bridge program in 2019. Engaging activities like that will be more frequent during this year's summer programs after a grueling year spent under pandemic restrictions.
Pinellas County teacher Chelsea Massey, center, displays a bird feeder for third-grade students at 74th Street Elementary School during the first day of the district's Summer Bridge program in 2019. Engaging activities like that will be more frequent during this year's summer programs after a grueling year spent under pandemic restrictions.
Published May 15

Schools across the Tampa Bay area and Florida plan summer programs like none other in recent memory.

They’re laying the groundwork for as many as four times the usual number of students to attend, with the primary goal of helping children get back on track for the fall after losing academic ground during the pandemic. Test scores and other measures will help teachers and principals determine who most needs to enroll.

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Families should begin receiving invitations by the end of May. Participation is voluntary, though encouraged.

After a grueling year, where learning encountered more barriers than in normal times, getting buy-in could prove difficult from students and teachers alike. Even in the best of times, “they want their summer,” said Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent for teaching and learning in Pinellas County schools.

“Our teachers need time off,” Hendrick said. “Our kids need time.”

Trying to make it interesting

The task, he and others suggested, is to find a balance that meets academic and mental health needs so that summer school does not come across as an unwanted chore.

“Who wants to do school year-round? We understand that challenge,” said Terry Connor, chief academic officer for Hillsborough County schools. “We have to find ways to engage them.”

That means moving beyond initiatives that attempt to drill students on topics they’ve struggled with all year, said Darlene DeMarie, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of South Florida.

“If that learning is just workbooks, worksheets — senseless — then nobody would benefit from that,” said DeMarie, who also serves on the board of the East Tampa Academy charter school.

“Life isn’t a multiple choice test,” she said. “We need meaningful learning, in context.”

For children whose families have less privilege, and who have struggled with limited internet and other learning impediments during the pandemic, the schools can provide meaningful opportunities, she said.

That’s why it’s important for schools to get their summer programs right, said Dr. Sharon Hoover, co-director of the University of Maryland’s National Center for School Mental Health. Many children do need them.

Dr. Sharon A. Hoover
Dr. Sharon A. Hoover [ University of Maryland School of Medicine ]

“Long summer holidays are not often helpful for kids in the first place,” said Hoover, a clinical psychologist. For many children, she said, too much time away from the structure of school “is not going to help them further.”

Summer programs can offer ways to make up for lost learning, but also so much more, she explained. School is the place where they can access services and structures, meals and adult care, too.

Schools get ready

Area school district leaders said they’ve taken steps to change things up this summer.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough, for instance, elementary schools will be adding music, art and P.E. periods to the mix of math and reading lessons. And the core curriculum will incorporate more collaborative hands-on projects that integrate the needed skills.

After a year spent sitting at desks, keeping distant from classmates and sharing nothing, the approach should be a welcome relief to all involved, said Hendrick, the Pinellas associate superintendent.

Federal funds will help pay for such additions, with a goal of allowing students to enjoy themselves while still learning, said Connor, the Hillsborough chief academic officer.

Pasco County schools plan to introduce a career exploration curriculum into their summer program, so it extends past basic remedial skills and tutorial sessions. Pasco, along with the others, also has scheduled a variety of enrichment camps to supplement the academics.

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The offerings include STEM, dual language and visual arts, among others. With many children having skipped kindergarten this past year, some schools are expanding their prekindergarten and kindergarten transition programs, as well.

“We’re doing a lot of extra things to make students ready for the fall,” said Melissa Musselwhite, student services director for Pasco County schools.

Melissa Musselwhite
Melissa Musselwhite [ Pasco County Schools ]

District officials said they’re also being mindful of the social and emotional needs that students might have. They intend to have counselors, behavior specialists and other providers on campuses, and they’ve created schedules that incorporate time away from school.

“We are building in monitoring of students’ mental health,” Musselwhite said.

Of course, not everyone will have the same requirements for the summer. Some children might do better staying away, Hoover noted.

“Not every student’s individual need is going to be catching up academically,” she said. “Some might need well-being support ... before the return in the fall so they can be ready to learn. Kids burn out in the same way that adults burn out.”

Looking long range

As everyone moves ahead, they should view summer school as part of a longer-range approach to education, said Andrew McEachin, director of the NWEA Collaborative for Student Growth.

NWEA is a nonprofit organization that develops educational tests. Several Florida school districts use its assessments.

Research has shown over time that summer school doesn’t have a great track record of generating sustained impacts on student outcomes, McEachin said, and it’s “not realistic” to expect this year’s summer programs to drive major improvements in test scores.

But, by creating models that are not more of the same, such as including the career planning and project-based lessons, students should benefit, he said.

In addition to making some progress toward their academic goals, children also will have chances to reconnect with their friends and teachers in a less onerous environment, he said. Some will be able to reacclimate to campuses they haven’t visited in a year.

Hoover, from the University of Maryland, said she hoped schools will find new ways to reduce learning loss, promote student well-being and support individual student needs.

“This is a unique moment in human history,” she said, “where we have the opportunity to reimagine school.”