For some Kansas students, summer school (or enrichment) could be their saving grace
After a difficult year for student learning, Kansas school leaders are already anticipating needing years to fully identify and address the effects of COVID-19 on students’ learning and social-emotional well-being.
Preliminary data, coming before the more definitive data the spring state assessments will provide, shows the pandemic has had some material effect on students’ learning, particularly among lower-income and at-risk students.
But even as practically all Kansas schools plan a return to in-person learning by the end of March, they’re also looking to use the summer as a chance to jumpstart any longer-term efforts to get students back on track, as well as helping students recoup the feeling of being in a school environment.
“We’re really looking at, if there’s any loss of learning, we want to make it up,” education commissioner Randy Watson told the Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday. “But part of the loss is the normalcy of school that we didn’t have. Even if you were in-person, there were quarantines, there was virus spread, and you couldn’t go on field trips — all things that are part of a regular school year that were lost.”
Watson said it could take multiple years of extended and enhanced summer school, coupled with other interventions like intense tutoring services, to make up any learning gap.
And in looking to bring students and families onboard with the idea of even more school after potentially stressful months in hybrid or remote-learning, Kansas schools are aiming to rethink the way the public might perceive summer “school.”
Not your parents’ summer school
“If I said to you, ‘summer school,’ you might not think about it as a good thing,” Watson told The Capital-Journal. “But if I said to you, ‘summer camp,’ it makes you think differently, right?
“Maybe it’s as easy renaming what it is. Because when kids and parents think ‘summer camp,’ they think of it as enrichment activity, where when they hear ‘summer school,’ they think remedial.”
But schools’ recent and current approach to summer school, or extended enrichment, is more than just a change in wording.
For years, districts have increasingly looked to mitigate any potential learning loss faced by students — especially students from lower-income, at-risk backgrounds — when they leave school buildings for a quarter of the calendar year each summer.
Research since the turn of the millennium developed the "faucet theory," which postulates that during the school year, the tap of education is turned on for all students.
But while those resources may continue to flow for children in better equipped, higher-income homes, students from lower-income backgrounds are stunted not only in their academic growth, but in their abilities to learn and develop social-emotional cues and relationships.
Although summer has also traditionally been a time for students low-performing high school students to come in and make up lost or failed credits to still graduate on time, schools have then more recently used the summer as an opportunity to offer “enrichment” activities and resources on top of what students might receive during the regular school year, said Todd Goodson, an assistant dean at Kansas State University’s College of Education.
“At its best, summer learning offers young people the opportunity to explore areas of interest,” Goodson said. “Historically, we think of summer school in terms of remedial education, something targeting students’ academic areas of concern. While that is important, summer can also be a time to address students’ strengths. As adults looking back on our experiences, often some of our most powerful learning happened during the summer.”
At Topeka USD 501, the district about four years ago began a concerted push to expand its enrichment opportunities over the summer, especially recognizing that some of the district’s students, who disproportionately come from lower-income backgrounds, might not have the same kind of summer opportunities other students’ families may be able to provide for them.
Superintendent Tiffany Anderson said the district’s approach is with a vision for making those summer activities as fulfilling and engaging as possible for students, with offerings such as basketball camp, swimming, art or maybe even cooking.
“It’s an opportunity for continued academic rigor,” Anderson said. “Some students use it to get a head start. We have a lot of students who will take high school credit courses over the summer to get a head start. We also have students who use it as a chance for a refresher or to get some help. But I wouldn’t say that the majority of it is necessarily remedial.”
In nearby Seaman USD 345, director of secondary education Danira Fernandez-Flores says it’s also about building social and cultural capital.
The district’s summer enrichment has also ramped up in the last few years, and particularly in summer 2020 as USD 345 sought to address the gaps caused by the sudden shift to online learning earlier in the spring, she said.
For some students, those summer enrichment activities are a close enough approximation to the kind of experiences wealthier or more able families might experience, Fernandez-Flores said.
“A summer experience, for some of our students, is a learning experience, when their parents can take them to another state, or to a museum or a national park,” she said. “We have students who don’t have access to that type of summer experience, so being with us in our schools in enriching activities and environments will help them also develop that social and cultural capital that they may not have access to otherwise.”
Unlike some other Topeka-area districts, Seaman USD 345 has offered in-person learning to elementary students for most of the school year.
In any case, director of elementary education Rebecca Kramer said the district will look to build more “application-based” opportunities in its summer programs compared to other years, to allow students to recover some of the cooperative learning and physical activity they maybe have missed.
“A portion of it will still be very skills-focused — so lots of phonics, reading fluency, math fluency,” Kramer said. “We want to get them back into the routine and have some of the basic skills to apply in other areas and content areas.
“But we’re also going to try to build in project-based learning and other types of opportunities later in the morning to be more collaborative and solving a problem, with it being more application-based in nature.”
'Tired' teachers could be asked to give up summers, but compensation would come from targeted federal funds
At the tail end of an exhausting school year, Watson acknowledged it could be a difficult ask for teachers to come in during the summer to help facilitate additional activities or classes.
“Everyone is tired from the pandemic,” Watson said. “Everyone is irritated. But we’re going to have an opportunity over the next several months and years to have an impact we’ve always dreamed about making in every community. And we need to take advantage of it. We need to push hard and look at what the data tells us.”
While teacher contracts with their districts typically cover the regular school year and a few days of district-mandated professional development, teachers usually work into the summer anyway, either to prepare lesson plans for the upcoming school year or to catch up on continued professional learning, said Sherri Schwanz, vice president of the Kansas National Education Association teacher’s union.
She said teachers, just like students and families, have been mostly excited to return to in-person interactions and learning, and that’s an enthusiasm that could feasibly extend into the summer.
But she emphasized that not every teacher will share that same enthusiasm.
“It might be an elementary teacher saying, I can’t,” Schwanz said. “But it could also be a middle or high school teacher saying they’d love to team up with another teacher to offer some kind of summer opportunity. We have to think outside the box for our kids, but we have to compensate the professional at the professional rate.”
In any case, school districts won’t be for a lack of funding. Kansas’s public schools, between rounds of funding including the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden later this week, will cumulatively be allocated over $1 billion to use in mitigating the effects of COVID-19 and any learning loss caused by the pandemic.
Such funding could readily go toward paying teachers for any additional duties beyond their contract time, with specific provisions in the funding actually aimed at creating summer enrichment opportunities.
“There is a lot of money out there to help kids catch up,” said Kansas State Board of Education Chairman Jim Porter, R-Fredonia. “Hearing the excuse, ‘We don’t have money,’ is simply not valid, and we need to make sure we have a way to hold (school district’s) feet to the fire.”
Outside of teachers, Watson and Schwanz said the summer could be a great opportunity for school districts to work even more closely with their community partners, like local non-profits or colleges, to offer collaborative summer programming like camps or workshops.
“Bring in extra people, bring in your community,” Watson said of ways districts could use federal relief funds. “Invite them back in. What are we going to do this summer? Kids should be in engaging, fun, enriching environments with good learning. We should be pushing for an extended school year.”
Why 'year-round’ schooling doesn't necessarily have to be year-round
No Kansas district offers “year-round” schooling, although some districts like Topeka USD 501 are exploring or have explored the idea of having students in school even in the summer months.
USD 501’s exploration of year-round schooling has mostly centered around spreading time off from school around the calendar year, and the Topeka Board of Education’s committee on year-long schooling is expected to report on its findings to the school board later this spring.
But year-round schooling may not necessarily mean all students come into school continuously every month, especially in the next few years as summer school or learning opportunities, even if just for a month, bridge a longer three-month gap between school years.
Watson said some schools may essentially be implementing year-round school without formalizing it as such over the next few years.
“I think what you’ll see is a few districts start to offer more summer opportunities, and I think you’ll see some start to offer extended school years, where school starts earlier, to try to engage kids in new types of learning environments,” he said. “If you combine those, you’re in essence, you’re almost going to school year-round, just without an all-year schedule.”
Anderson, the Topeka superintendent, said tools like year-long school schedules or extended learning will be invaluable in staving off any learning loss among the state’s more at-risk students.
But she said those tools will hinge on the future availability of summer and at-risk funding.
“Taking one or another is detrimental to students, because prior to the pandemic, we had already been using some of the dollars we had been allocated for at-risk students for summer programming,” Anderson said. “Now after the pandemic, we certainly recognize that there are academic and social-emotional needs that need to be addressed, and we’re still evaluating the range in which we need to address those.”
Although the state’s K-12 system has another daunting task ahead of it to finally start the process of recovery from the pandemic, Watson urged administrators, teachers, students and parents to head into the summer — and the next few school years — determination and enthusiasm.
“We’re tired, I understand that,” he said. “Parents are tired, kids are tired. But we have an opportunity, and we should do everything we can to take advantage of it over the next two or three years, including the next two or three months.”