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Education

First State educators take an aggressive approach to summer learning

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Delaware Public Media
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After a school year unlike any other, many schools and students are taking part in a summer unlike any other.

The combination combating learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and millions of government dollars has fueled a vastly different version of “summer school.”

Contributor Larry Nagengast offers a sample of what it’s looks like around Delaware.

Summer school looks a little different this summer.

It’s not mostly about making up classes that students failed during the regular school year.

Yes, there’s some of what today’s educators call “credit recovery” going on.

But there’s a lot more of helping students regain the sense of place, the comfort level that school provided before a year or so’s worth of in-person learning was lost to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There were a lot of lessons learned” when school buildings closed during the pandemic, says Nate Durant, co-head of school for academic supports at Freire Charter School, which enrolls about 500 students in grades 8-12 at its location in downtown Wilmington. “We need to do things differently. We have to break the mold.”

Students attending programs at Freire this summer do not have to be there, Durant says. “Every child who chooses to be with us knows that this is a better path.”

Leland Kent, executive director of Great Oaks Charter School, housed in the Community Education Building in downtown Wilmington, echoes Durant. With a mix of credit recovery and enrichment offerings, Kent says “we’re stepping outside the box [and] giving students opportunities,” providing teens with reasons to want to learn and better themselves.

"There were a lot of lessons learned. We need to do things differently. We have to break the mold." - Freire Charter School's Nate Durant

In the Colonial School District, even students entering first through fifth grades are jumping at the opportunity to spend some time in the classroom this summer. “This year, we had 150 elementary spots to fill for person to person instruction, and we got that many to sign up in 48 hours,” says Jessica Hitchens, the district’s supervisor of extended learning, describing a reading/math/enrichment program with half-day and full-day options.

The intersection of learning loss resulting from the pandemic with the infusion of federal funds has made schools busier this summer than most other years.

A mid-July survey taken by the state Department of Education found that more than 12,300 students were participating in summer learning programs. The total is actually higher because the survey did not include the Laurel School District and any charter schools, a department spokesperson said. In addition, more than 2,100 children statewide are participating in academic programs hosted by community-based organizations, primarily Boys & Girls Clubs.

On top of that, the Department of Education has purchased licenses to provide online access to literacy and math programs, making them available even to public school students who are not enrolled in programs at their district or charter schools. Students entering first through sixth grades have access to the literacy programs; students entering first through eighth grades have access to the math programs.

The department has also contracted with the Reading Assist Institute to provide one-on-one reading tutoring as a supplement to summer learning programs. The nonprofit has hired 96 tutors, reaching about 500 students, mostly in first through third grade, at 15 district and charter schools throughout the state, according to Caroline O’Neal, the organization’s executive director.

The expanded summer learning programs have been underwritten by federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants, part of the American Rescue Plan Act enacted earlier this year. The Department of Education has spent about $13.5 million of its grant money for summer learning initiatives (including software that will be available throughout the school year). Districts and charter schools have received about $370 million in grants and are expected to spend about 20 percent of that total, roughly $74 million, on summer and school-year programs to combat learning loss. 

"We're making sure students have curriculum and content in front of them, at their grade level."- Delaware Dept. of Education's Monica Gant

“It’s all about engagement and readiness,” says Monica Gant, associate secretary of the Department of Education’s academic support team. That means putting the primary emphasis on having students ready for the challenges they will face in the new school year and worrying less about what they might have missed in the past 16 months, when most instruction was delivered remotely or in a hybrid mode.

The licensed software purchased by the Department of Education meshes with the curriculum used in most districts so lessons learned in the summer will position students well for the start of school. “We’re making sure students have curriculum and content in front of them, at their grade level,” Gant says.

Districts and charters set their own calendars for summer learning. Some started in late June and are ending this week. Others didn’t start until after the Fourth of July and have another two weeks to run. Most operate on a four-day, morning-only weekly schedule but some include afternoon programming that tends to focus more on recreational or enrichment activities.

Here's a look at the approaches some districts and charter schools are taking this summer.

Flexibility at Freire

Leaders at Freire Charter School in Wilmington decided they would use the summer to offer “short, compact programming,” focusing on essential skills that students “would be able to master in a short period of time,” Durant says.

The school created a seven-week schedule with three two-hour blocks each week, giving students the option of spending two, four or even six hours a day in learning activities. Rather than offering variations of typical semester-long classes, the topics are more specific. “It could be mastering quadratic equations, or coding, or rowing and kayaking, or learning to play chess,” Durant says.

The idea, he explains, is to give students a voice in what they want to learn, what they need to learn, and then have the instructional staff provide the guidance the students need. Eighty to 100 students are turning out each week, he says.

Each of the academic offerings is based on Common Core learning standards. Students who need “credit recovery” – making up a class they failed during the school year – must pass three related one-week classes. In algebra, for example, that might mean spending a week on linear equations, a week on quadratic equations and a week factoring polynomials.

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Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
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Delaware Public Media
Senior Garry Davis shows off his rocket during a Freire Charter School summer learning session.

In a science class, teacher Marley Luke, a former engineer, is guiding her dozen students through making a rocket using “paper, straws, scissors, tape and imagination.” Out in the hallway, sophomore Quinton Williams, blowing through the straw, launches his rocket three times, at distances ranging from 8 to 15 feet. “We’ve gotten rockets to go up to 25 feet,” Luke says.

“It’s a trial-and-error kind of thing,” senior Garry Davis says, with Luke pleased to note that “they’re finally seeing science as fun rather than as school work.”

Down the hall, college counselor Sarah Frederick is using summer as a change of pace, leading a handful of students reading a short young adult fantasy novel, “Pet” by Akwaeke Emezi. “It’s short and it’s an opportunity to read for fun,” she says. It’s also an opportunity for students to rediscover the in-person connections they had missed for most of the school year. “Everybody is happy to see each other,” she says. “The energy is really good.”

Other summer programming offered by Freire includes hiking and boating at Lums Pond State Park, online training for computer gaming jobs, a movies club and art classes featuring projects like ceramics that typically can’t be completed at home.

Enrichment at Great Oaks

In addition to two periods of the typical credit recovery classes for about 70 students in the morning at the Community Education Building, Great Oaks Charter School offers enrichment programs there in the afternoon for 30 to 40 students as well as an all-day enrichment format at the Hicks Anderson Community Center in the West Center City Neighborhood.

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Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
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Delaware Public Media
CaDeidra Jarmon of Great Oaks Charter School offers tips on leadership during a program at the Hicks Anderson Community Center.

The program at the community center, led by CaDeidra Jarmon, the school’s dean of student advocacy and success, focuses on a different topic each week, typically with themes like leadership and community service.

One day earlier this month, the group heard from Kyle Jennings, a 20-year-old graduate of the defunct Design Thinking Academy charter school, who described overcoming challenges typical of urban youth as he cultivated mentors and earned a full scholarship to the University of Delaware. “You can do whatever you set your mind to doing,” he told the high school students. Then he revealed the bar he is setting for himself: “I would like to be a senator for at least two terms, and then maybe move up to the White House.”

The Great Oaks program welcomes students from other schools as well.

“I always connect to the places where people want to help me,” says Isaiah Salaam, who recently completed eighth grade at Eastside Charter School and will enter Howard High School of Technology next month. “When I go to Howard, I will tell others about this place.”

Vo-Techs: Business as usual

A pandemic-prompted change is scheduling last fall – offering four classes per semester instead of extending them over the full year – helped the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District avoid an expansive summer workload, Superintendent Joe Jones says. Many students who missed time in their career areas because of the remote/hybrid learning setup in the fall were able to recapture those hours during the spring semester. More than 550 students participated in credit-recovery classes during the spring semester, leaving an enrollment of about 280 students for in-person summer programs in technology fields.

Students who need to make up credits in traditional classes – English, math, science and social studies – have enrolled for four weeks of online lessons this summer, Jones says.

Colonial closing the gap

The Colonial School District, which stretches along the Delaware River from Wilmington to south of the C&D Canal, entered the summer envisioning “an opportunity to do something better in our summer programs than ever before,” Hitchens says.

About 1,300 of the district’s nearly 10,000 students are participating in summer programs, roughly 900 face-to-face and 400 virtually, she says. As of this week, students had accessed more than 2,500 books through the online portals provided by the state.

At the elementary level, the key components are #WERead and #WECount programming which provide participants with picture books or children’s novels (depending on reading level) plus activity boards to provide instruction and enrichment in reading and math. The sessions are offered face-to-face in the morning, and there’s a full-day option that includes afternoon programming that includes STEM, arts, physical education and social emotional learning activities, Hitchens says.

"They’re trying out new and creative ways to engage students. It's not necessarily the same lessons they used in the school year." -Colonial School District supervisor of extended learning Jessica Hitchens

The district is also offering a remote learning option – a morning Zoom session led by a district teacher that connects students who are reading the same book together, plus an array of language arts and math activities spanning two hours.

Sixteen of Reading Assist’s 96 summer tutors are working with Colonial students, providing a half-hour of daily one-on-one instruction to about 80 students, Hitchens says.

Middle school students can participate in Tyler’s Camp, created by the Learning Collaborative nonprofit, either in-person or virtually. Tyler’s Camp provides daily instruction in literacy and social-emotional learning, plus enrichment activities like art, dance, fitness and STEM topics.

In addition to the typical credit recovery at William Penn High School, the district is offering a book club curriculum and a financial literacy curriculum for high school students as enrichment offerings.

Colonial is also providing tutoring for middle and high school students through the private Back to Basics program. Hitchens says that 112 students have signed up for that service.

Both William Penn and Freire are also offering a program through WAVE, an education nonprofit, and underwritten by the state Department of Health and Social Services that pays a limited number of low-income students $10 an hour to take classes designed to teach 21st-century career skills through project-based learning. According to Hitchens and Durant, the rationale behind the payments it that it brings them into a classroom setting by removing the need to choose between school and a job that would help support themselves and other family members.

Teachers: A time to experiment

While students may be using the summer to catch up, get ahead or adjust their focus, teachers are using the time to test new ideas and methods.

“Last year, with virtual learning, they used new platforms and became better at their craft,” Hitchens says. “Now we’re seeing that again. They’re trying out new and creative ways to engage students. It’s not necessarily the same lessons they used in the school year, and they’re getting feedback from their students too.”

At Freire, Spanish teacher Alexis Simms is testing her personal boundaries by teaching classes on creative entrepreneurship and helping to organize a Black Student Union at the school. She sees some of her colleagues making similar efforts too. “We can try things now, and use what works during the regular school year,” she says.

For many students, the bottom line is a return to a more familiar way of life.

“I was remote all year,” says Davis, the Freire senior. “It’s good to be back in school, to learn new things … and to see people.”

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