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Principal Margot Zahner’s vision for summer enrichment at Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, grows clearer every week.

She imagines students reading underneath the two silver maple trees that flank the entrance of the building, while another group studies the life cycle of plants and insects in a nearby community garden and a third prepares a play to be performed before their parents on a soon-to-be-built stage.

“We have been doing a lot of work on screens for such a long time,” Zahner said. “We want to counterbalance that with joy and discovery in our garden through hands-on science and exploration outside. We learn so much by being active and engaged in play.”

But, she noted, this year’s summer school program will focus on more than just fun. Zahner and other administrators in her district hope it will chip away at the isolation children have experienced as well as the learning loss they suffered during the shutdowns: Harrisonburg City Public Schools were closed to most students for nearly a year before opening up, at least in part, in late March.

Margot Zahner, the principal of Waterman Elementary in Harrisonburg, Va., wants to create a summer school program that blends outdoor activities with academic support that her students may have missed during a largely remote school year. Credit: Gemma Amendola

Zahner’s district isn’t the only one looking for a salve. Schools across the country, concerned about children falling behind academically and bolstered by additional federal funding, are turning to summer school and enrichment programs to shore up students’ skills before they start the new school year.

But while schools’ ambitions are high, they face numerous hurdles. Teacher burnout is forcing districts to look outside their own highly-qualified staff for less skilled summertime personnel at a time when academics is arguably more important than ever.

Even if the district succeeds in putting together a summer program, it’s not clear how much summer school will help students. Many research studies show that academic gains are fleeting and that long-term improvement in math and reading remain elusive.

Poor attendance plays a role: A multi-year RAND Corporation study of five cities’ summer school offerings found that in the first year of a two-year program, a full 20 percent of students failed to show up at all; by the second year, the no-show rate had increased to 48 percent.

The District of Columbia school system, which was not part of the RAND study, is attempting to address absenteeism through an “earn-and-learn” program that combines paid jobs with mandatory academics, providing kids a chance to catch up while gaining traditional work experience.

Related: Slim research evidence for summer school

School districts are moving ahead despite such concerns. For Harrisonburg, additional federal dollars will bring to life plans administrators have mulled for years. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, signed into law March 11, includes almost $123 billion to help schools reopen — with around $30 billion set aside for after-school and summer learning programs. The U.S. Department of Education is also convening a collaborative of national organizations to design “evidence-based” summer school programs.

This latest allotment marks the third round of Covid stimulus for schools: Harrisonburg received $1.26 million in initial CARES Act Funds, $1.12 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds and $5.26 million through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The district does not yet know how much money it will receive through the latest stimulus package, but expects it will be more than the three other rounds combined.

“If we can get kids ready for success next year, we believe that would be better than simply reinforcing what they learned already.”

Dan Gohl, chief academic officer, Broward County Public Schools, Florida

While many districts mull the size and scope of their summer offerings, others have less flexibility in crafting their plan: School districts in North Carolina are now required to provide at least 150 hours or 30 days of in-person learning recovery and enrichment for students whose education suffered under distance learning.

House Bill 82, signed into law April 9, upended superintendent Patrick Miller’s plan for 90 hours of enrichment delivered three days a week at Greene County Schools in Snow Hill, North Carolina. His district’s new program will run Monday through Thursday from June 14 to July 29 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“The legislature, I’m sure, has the very best of intentions,” he said, but added that it should have allowed districts to tailor their summer programs to their own students’ needs.

Still, he said, he didn’t feel blindsided: He kept a close eye on the bill.

This is the first time, to his knowledge, that Miller’s district will offer summer learning in grades four through eight. Prior enrichment focused on children in first through third grades, and credit recovery for high school students. He’s currently working to staff the expanded program, knowing some long-time educators will decline.

“Teachers are already burned out, teaching in person and online at the same time in many cases,” he said. “Some teachers would do three days a week, but once we have to do five days a week, you can forget it.”

Miller’s district, about 70 miles east of Raleigh, serves 2,700 students, nearly 80 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunch before the entire district became eligible for the program four years ago.

“Summer is important, but health and safety comes first.”

Beth Sellers, Harrisonburg, Virginia, parent

As in many districts, Greene County’s schools were entirely virtual last spring. Roughly 60 percent of students returned to schools this fall, attending class in alternate weeks. 

The district plans to take full advantage of federal monies, which can be used through 2023. Not only will it offer an augmented summer school program for the next three summers, but it will add 90 minutes to the school day, Monday through Thursday, for the next two academic years.

The extended-day plan would be modeled on an earlier version, enacted in 2007 after some of the district’s schools were identified as low performing. That program ended in 2011. Miller and his staff knew they needed to bring it back after the pandemic.

“We didn’t believe a one-shot summer program was going to be enough,” he said.  “We think it will take a sustained and intentional effort over a number of years to attack these gaps.” 

Related: Children will need summer tutors to make up for pandemic learning loss

Broward County Public Schools, the sixth-largest school district in the nation and the second largest in Florida, serves roughly 212,000 students from pre-K through 12th grade. Its administrators, like those in other districts, were worried about students who have struggled this school year with a mix of distance and in-person learning.

Daniel Gohl, chief academic officer for the school system, said it has offered three summer programs for the past decade: One for third graders struggling with reading; another that allows high schoolers to recover credits; and the option of an extended school year for students with disabilities.

Historically, some 9,000 students qualify for these programs each year, but the district is casting a far wider net in response to the pandemic. Last fall, it began identifying those who were not making adequate academic progress, and then changed the criteria for qualification until the list of eligible children swelled to 58,000.

“We think it will take a sustained and intentional effort over a number of years to attack these gaps.”

Patrick Miller, superintendent, Greene County Schools in Snow Hill, N.C.

Broward County expects roughly two-thirds of those students to participate: Other students within the district, who have not been identified as needing help, may occupy the remaining slots. The district will provide before- and after-care, nurses, security personnel, community partnerships, meals and tutoring in addition to the academic programming.

“We can only offer these services, not mandate them,” Gohl said, adding the district will extend its summer school to kindergarten, first and second grade students for the first time and will lengthen the program by a week.

It has also changed its approach, focusing on new material instead of reviewing things students have already studied. 

“If we can get kids ready for success next year, we believe that would be better than simply reinforcing what they learned already,” Gohl said. 

The stakes are high for students and schools: Early studies indicate some children are progressing more slowly academically than in typical years.

Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist with the education and testing nonprofit NWEA, analyzed the fall 2020 test scores of some 4.4 million students in grades three through eight, comparing them to those of children in the same grades the year before. She and her colleagues found the students lagged five to 10 percentile points in math.

“We have been doing a lot of work on screens for such a long time,” Zahner said. “We want to counterbalance that with joy and discovery in our garden through hands-on science and exploration outside.”

Margot Zahner, principal, Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg, Virginia

Kuhfeld noted many disadvantaged children, who were unable to access testing because of technological or other barriers, were missing from the data. Their absence could cause schools to underestimate students’ needs.

She believes summer school and enrichment programs could be particularly beneficial for those who were already behind but worries about schools’ ability to build robust programs when they are so focused on the day-to-day operation of campuses during the pandemic.

“District resources have been, understandably, focused on this school year,” Kuhfeld said. “It may be challenging for them to pull off something that is academically oriented to help catch kids up.”

She said schools that have offered strong summer learning programs in the past are better suited to beef up such offerings.

Related: Summer and after-school programs: five ways to provide for the other half of education amid the coronavirus

Harrisonburg is one of many school systems that sees summer school as a way to support students both academically and socially. Located some 130 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., it serves 6,150 children, many of whom faced obstacles in distance learning. Roughly 80 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, and more than a third are English language learners: Some 900 kids, many the children of workers at local poultry plants, are only just beginning to learn the language.

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package includes around $30 billion for after-school and summer learning programs.

Harrisonburg spent around $416,000 on K-8 summer school and enrichment programs in 2019. It’s adding another $27,000 for this summer, plus additional funds for construction of its new outdoor learning space. 

Related: Is it finally time for year-round school?

While some children have been progressing at the same rate as they did during in-person instruction, those who had always struggled — including English-language learners and students with disabilities — are lagging even further behind.

“I worry about the equity gaps widening,” said Harrisonburg superintendent Michael G. Richards.

There are also continuing concerns about the health impacts of the pandemic. District officials don’t know yet how that may affect enrollment, but some parents say they still worry about the risk of contracting Covid-19.

Beth Sellers, second from left, said safety concerns leave her uncertain about enrolling her children in summer school at the Harrisonburg district, which is planning a robust summer program. Her children, from left to right, are Angelina, 7, Brooklyn, 5 (on Sellers’ lap), Taylin, 13, and Stormie, 11. Credit: Karmen Eby

Beth Sellers has three children in Harrisonburg schools. Her 7-year-old would be thrilled to participate in the district’s summer enrichment program, but her older girls might not: Both have orthopedic issues that make it a struggle to walk.

“I’m not sure they can do it safely,” Sellers said. “They would need people touching them to walk, which is hard during Covid. It makes it difficult for them to participate in school-based settings with 6-foot distancing and other pandemic safety precautions.”

Stormie, 11, would love to find a music-based program, one that would allow her to sing, play maracas and bells.

Her older sister, Taylin, 13, has something else in mind.

“I’d like to be outside, reading and talking about books,” she said.

Her mother is currently looking for alternatives for both girls.

Leatrice Woods, teacher, Harrisonburg City Public Schools, Virginia. While some educators decided against teaching summer school after an exhausting year, Woods is eager to linger on subject matter in a way distance learning did not allow. Credit: Bob Adamek

“It might not be the same program, but something based out of our home, done remotely or through service providers coming to our backyard,” she said. “Summer is important, but health and safety come first.”

Harrisonburg, accustomed to hosting about 600 K-8 students each summer, doesn’t yet know how many will participate: Some 685 children expressed interest by late March, but the number is expected to rise.

Although staffing was initially a concern, by April the number of teachers expressing interest in participating had increased. Leatrice Woods, a fourth grade teacher in the district, didn’t need convincing. She longed to linger on challenging subject matter and create a fun, hands-on learning environment for students, something distance education didn’t allow.

“I just felt so compelled to do something and to give kids the opportunity to get outside their home,” she said.

This story about summer school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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