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Learning initiatives seek to battle ‘summer learning loss’ and “COVID slide’

Delaware Public Media

Educators face a unique challenge this summer.

They’re not only tasked with combating the usual summer learning loss, but they now need to address learning progress stunted by the pandemic – a so-called  “Covid Slide.”

Contributor Larry Nagengast took a closer look at initiatives  attempting to meet these challenges.

More than 200 Delaware middle and high school students will be riding the WAVE this summer – a wave that has nothing to do with surfboards and everything to do with learning.

WAVE – it’s capitalized but not an acronym – is a partnership of education-based organizations pulled together by Social Contract, the collective impact consulting practice led by Catherine Lindroth, who created the Summer Learning Collaborative six years ago to help low-income children in the elementary grades overcome “summer learning loss.”

"Just like all waves don't perform in the same way, our whole design is based on the belief that no two kids are the same." - Social Contract's Catherine Lindroth

It bears some resemblance to a pair of recent alternative learning initiatives. Like the Summer Collaborative, it is built on partnerships. Like Dual School, it motivates teenagers by giving them resources to follow their passions.

WAVE, Lindroth says, is an attempt to push back against “Covid Slide,” the loss of academic progress that occurred when traditional schooling was halted due to the state of emergency declared as the coronavirus pandemic engulfed the state. The individualized learning program will enable youth to “engage in compelling and productive online and offline experiences this summer,” she says.

Explaining the program and its theme, Lindroth says, “just like all waves don’t perform in the same way, our whole design is based on the belief that no two kids are the same.”

The program, which starts Monday and will run through Aug. 11, is nothing like the traditional summer school, loaded with makeup classes for students who fared poorly during the regular school year.

Rather, it will offer classes designed to appeal to teenagers. Among the topics are aviation, money and financial decision-making, mindfulness and leadership, computer coding, creative writing, dance, yoga and exploring personal identities. Participants will be able to choose two classes from a diverse menu of options.

“Interest in the subject is what drives a love of learning,” says Ihsan Muhammad, director of strategic partnerships at Wilmington’s Community Education Building, one of the partners in the summer project.

The classes will be taught in real time through a distance learning environment, using the Zoom app. The format enables WAVE to latch on to instructors who might be located hundreds of miles from Delaware and provides participants with the ability to interact with the instructors.

But there will also be a personal, localized touch: a team of guides, each one working with about eight youngsters, first for an hourlong “morning meeting” and at a wrap-up session around 3 each afternoon. For now, these sessions will be virtual, with the guides working from their homes, but they could move to a face-to-face setting if current social distancing guidelines are loosed in the next month or so.

Erin Sweet, the guide coordinator, says her summer role will be much like her work during the school year, when she coaches and tutors students at the Great Oaks Charter School, a middle and high school housed in the Community Education Building.

The morning meeting, Sweet says, will focus on social-emotional issues and skills and help “create a sense of community.” Then, during the day, Sweet and her fellow guides will be reminding the teens to log on to their classes, monitoring their participation and checking in with at least two teens a day for a mentoring session.

Civic engagement and current issues will be the focus of many of the classes, Sweet says, so she hopes the content will inspire participants to become more involved in their communities.

"More of the same - more math, more English - was not going to work for the summer." Delaware Charter Schools Network exec. director Kendall Massett

Another feature of the program will be virtual college and career preparation meetups scheduled throughout the summer. Many low-income students are not familiar with the college search and admissions process and they often don’t get to spend much time with overburdened college and career counselors at their schools, Sweet says.

Most of the WAVE guides are recent college graduates and they have been connecting with their college classmates to ask them to participate in these online conversations, Sweet says.

Lindroth believes the personal interactions built into the program will be welcomed by youngsters who have been “Zoomed out” from spending several hours a day on traditional school classes delivered online.

“More of the same – more math, more English – was not going to work for the summer,” adds Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, who was involved in early discussions about WAVE’s development.

“This is a pilot for a bigger vision,” Lindroth says, adding that she would like to see the model refined and repackaged for use during the school year.

“I truly believe this is the way education needs to go,” Massett says, expressing the hope that post-pandemic learning reduces “butts in seats time” and results in doing more than “taking baby steps” toward systemic reform.

“We’re still learning. We’re trying to understand what works. We’re listening to the young people, and we’ll see how it grows,” Muhammed says.

Participants are being enrolled through connections with a variety of organizations. Fifty teens are also involved in Wilmington’s summer youth employment program. Thirty are associated with the Delaware Futures mentoring program and 15 more have been identified through First State Community Action in Sussex County. Great Oaks students who participated in a test drive of the project last month will continue in WAVE through the summer. Middle and high schools in the Delaware Charter Schools Network expect to provide another 73 students, according to Kendall Massett, the organization’s executive director.

Participants will not be charged any fees, Lindroth says. Funding for the program has been provided by a number of foundations and nonprofits, including the Vision Fund, United Way of Delaware, and the Longwood, Welfare and Laffey-McHugh foundations.

Partners in the WAVE initiative include the Community Education Building, Great Oaks, Delaware Futures, the state Department of Labor, the Wilmington Department of Parks and Recreation, the YMCA of Delaware, Boys & Girls Clubs, Rodney Street Tennis, the Charter Schools Network and STRIVE, a character-based leadership training program.

Other innovations continue this summer

The Summer Collaborative and Dual School, two relatively recent additions to Delaware’s innovative learning community, will be offering their own programs this summer. As with so many other ventures, their offerings will be delivered virtually this year.

Summer Collab (it has dropped “learning” from its name) expects to reach as many as 550 children in kindergarten through fifth grade in partnerships with three community centers and eight Boys & Girls Club sites, says Candice Buchanan, the organization’s president. The Collab model features a combination of 20 to 30 minutes daily of individual or small-group reading instruction and project-based learning experiences presented in a summer camp-like setting.

The model has demonstrated success in helping children from low-income backgrounds combat the impact of summer learning loss.

Last year, Buchanan said, participants showed an average growth of 2.8 months in reading ability while children in the same demographic who do not participate in a summer reading program typically show a 3-month loss.

Because Collab will operate virtually this year, children not connected to a participating community center may also enroll in the Remote Reading Buddies Program.

In a partnership with the Colonial School District, the Collab will be offering its Tyler’s Camp program to about 250 youths at four sites: Castle Hills Elementary for youths in fourth and fifth grades, and at McCullough, George Read and Gunning Bedford middle schools for youths in sixth and seventh grades. The program combines sports and arts instruction with development of engineering, leadership and literacy skills.

Dual School, now completing its third year, is a program that enables high school students to work for 12 weeks on their passion projects, with a focus on social justice, environmental, health and wellness and technology themes. Its free four-week summer program, which starts Monday, essentially serves as a tease of what it would be like to participate in the semester-long program during the regular school year.

Each week will be devoted to a specific theme and will include one-hour Zoom sessions on Monday and Thursday. Dual School alumni will describe and explain the execution of their projects in the Monday session, giving participants ideas of what they might like to attempt, says Zack Jones, the program’s executive director. Participants will have Tuesday and Wednesday to develop their ideas before logging in on Thursday to discuss the ideas they’ve developed.

Jones says that he and program alumni will be available midweek to consult with participants as well.

Participants may enroll in individual sessions or for all four, Jones says.


Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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