Now is the time to begin planning summer learning programs

Amid the challenges of educating students through a pandemic, summer 2021 presented a bright spot in student learning and can be a turning point for the education system if school and policy leaders embrace summer learning for the essential role it plays in student success.

A recent report from Partnership for Children & Youth, Summer 2021: How California educators met the moment with re-engagement, reconnection, and reimagined learning, examined the state’s 2021 publicly funded summer learning programs, including the trends, best practices, challenges and innovative ideas through an analysis of statewide data, interviews with school leaders across 24 districts and media tracking.

In a Dec. 8 webinar discussing the findings and recommendations outlined in the report, Chris Hartley, deputy executive director for transformative systems with the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence highlighted the importance of continued collaboration among local educational agencies.

“There’s been unprecedented levels of attention and infusion of public funds, which is really allowing districts to think outside the box and to work with their communities to increase access and expand the role of summer programs,” Hartley said. “There are also many tremendous success stories across the state of districts taking full advantage of these opportunities. Learning from each other and building our collective relationships is critical.”

Summer programming in 2021 received significant attention as a means of accelerating learning, as well as unprecedented infusions of funding to increase access to and expand the role of high-quality summer learning and enrichment programs. Research has found summer learning programs can help reduce educational and wellness inequities by leveraging and expanding learning time outside the school day. “The compounding short- and long-term benefits of summer learning programs — student skill and academic growth; staff and leadership development; improved public safety, health, and mental health outcomes; parent employment — on both an individual and community level cannot be overstated,” according to the Partnership for Children & Youth report.

It’s important that LEAs start planning now for summer 2022 as ongoing funding, more time to plan and secure staff, and increasing vaccination rates among students will likely call for more substantial programming that can reach as many students and families as possible.

Recommendations outlined in the report detail next steps for district leaders, state policymakers and school administrators.

Summer program best practices

Summer learning programs combine academics with whole-child development to create learning opportunities that look and feel more like an engaging summer camp than traditional summer school. Therefore, student engagement, social-emotional learning and mental health must all be prioritized as school leaders develop programming that focuses on fun, hands-on, engaging learning activities aligned with district learning objectives.

Districts don’t have to do this work alone — partnerships with outside organizations, nonprofits and other agencies can expand district capacity, though it may vary based on schools’ locations and characteristics. Rural officials interviewed noted that while they have less access to community partners than their urban counterparts, they leveraged partnerships with their county offices of education to expand their programming.

Schools included in the report also utilized smaller class sizes, project-based learning and intentional curriculum to build students’ academic skills and provided time and space for professional development that benefits learning beyond the summer months.

While summer programming can benefit all students, it’s critical that LEAs target those who need in-person experiences most. To best ensure access among English learners; children of essential workers or from low-income households; and homeless, chronically absent and foster youth, several districts in the report used targeted recruitment and coordinated strategies. “This outreach and framing was important especially given the historical association of summer school programs as punitive,” the report states.

Even with the additional funds, staffing shortages proved challenging, and in some cases resulted in creative solutions. Many LEAs increased pay, some worked with their unions to modify job descriptions and maximize the number of full-time roles or gave staff the flexibility to choose what and how they teach. Sacramento City USD significantly expanded its Summer Ambassadors/Peer Mentors program, in which the district hires rising high school juniors and seniors to serve as peer mentors who lead activities and provide supervision at over 25 elementary and middle school summer sites. Officials said the district had planned to accept applications over two weeks but had to close the process early when it received 200 applications in two days.

What districts are doing

School leaders from across the state told attendees of the Dec. 8 webinar how they planned and implemented their 2021 summer programs and their impacts on children. Most speakers already had some form of summer enrichment.

Butte County Office of Education director of expanded learning Julie Jarrett noted that families in the region have dealt with some of California’s largest and most deadly fires in recent years and deal with significant trauma as a result. The county office has continued to work with community wellness partners to ensure students or staff in crisis could access the mental health support they needed, as well as other resources.

In the Lynwood Unified School District, enrichment programs, were extended summer program from three to six weeks, and each day allowed students to partake in different activities. While mornings included instruction in English language arts and math, afternoon enrichment included visual and performing arts on Mondays, social-emotional learning on Tuesdays, STEM with Lego sets on Wednesdays, physical education on Thursdays, and community services and E-sports on Fridays.

Rody Boonchouy, associate superintendent of instructional services at Davis Joint USD, noted that the district didn’t have enrichment programs in years past, and that this was the perfect time to build those out.

“We have our whole battery of typical academic interventions and remediation programs … great programs, but very status quo in terms of academic focus,” he said. Instead, district officials and community alike wanted to focus on whole child education to address those in-person opportunities that had been “missed for so long, particularly around creativity, critical thinking, music, arts, play, movement — that was the spirit of what we wanted to achieve.”

Partnership for Children & Youth will hold additional workshops and provide new resources in its Summer Game Plan Series, and has developed guidance detailing funding sources for expanded learning programs.