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How Will School Districts Leverage Stimulus Money for Summer Learning?

Here’s why reporters should follow summer school plans in 2021 and post COVID-19.

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Summer learning programs are offered across the country each year by school districts. But following the massive disruption of education sparked by COVID-19, there’s more pressure — and federal funding — to get it right, with meaningful and engaging learning opportunities in the summer.

Districts have three years to spend their share of more than $120 billion in extra K-12 aid under the American Rescue Plan, a stimulus measure President Joe Biden signed in March. One percent of that federal aid was specifically earmarked for summer learning, though districts also have flexibility to use additional stimulus dollars to support their efforts.

Three education leaders shared insights during an Education Writers Association panel, titled “How Summer ‘School’ Will Look Different This Year,” at the 2021 National Seminar.

“There’s an urgent need for restorative and meaningful summer experiences for our young people,” said Ebony Johnson, the chief learning officer for Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma. “We’ve committed in an unprecedented way to investing in our young people and doing that this summer in a way that we’ve not done before.”

Johnson made clear that this won’t be the usual “summer school.” Oftentimes in the past, summer school “felt punitive; it felt like a mandate,” she said, though the district in 2019 took steps to revamp its approach.

Credit: Peyton Sickles, staff photographer at the Chatham News + Record

This year, the design will be different, as will the scope (with more than double the number of students typically served in Tulsa), thanks to federal stimulus dollars. Each school in the district will host a summer learning program, but parts of the day will have the feel of a summer camp, according to the Tulsa schools official. (Here’s a link to the district’s summer learning website.)

“Half of their day will focus on that unfinished learning, the academic supports that are still needed,” Johnson said. “And then, the other half of their day will then, of course, open up for internships and STEM activities and clubs … the arts and robotics and chess and journalism.”

Aaron Dworkin, the executive director of the National Summer Learning Association, sees a tremendous opportunity to rethink summer programs on a broader scale, supported by a unique infusion of federal dollars.

“We have three years [to use] the funding,” he said. “That’s the real opportunity here,” to plan out meaningful programming over time, not just this summer, but in 2022 and beyond.

“The evidence base is really strong for what works” in summer learning, he said. “And we know what doesn’t work, too.”

Dworkin added: “The idea is to make it so exciting that it’s voluntary and everyone wants to come. ”

And it doesn’t have to only take place at school.

“Boston is a great example where they use the city as a classroom,” Dworkin said. “You have certified teachers working in programs at the zoo and the science museum, and cultural institutions running programs so students get out in their community.”

Credit: Peyton Sickles, staff photographer at the Chatham News + Record

Top takeaways and reporting tips from speakers

  • Part-time, remedial summer school is ill-advised.
    Extensive research on summer learning opportunities provides clear guide posts, the panelists said. “I am not aware of any studies that have definitively shown that traditional, remedial part-day summer school is at all effective,” said Jennifer Peck, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Children and Youth, a California-based advocacy group.Research, she said, shows key ingredients that set programs up for success both academically and in supporting children’s well-being. Such summer programs are provided for a full day (not half), and use “blended staffing,” with teachers working on the academic portion and professionals from community-based organizations providing enrichment and other fun activities, according to Peck.
  • Consistent attendance is important.
    Another core finding from research is the need for students to show up every day.“If you’re not designing these programs around student interest and making it fun and making it feel like camp, kids aren’t going to show up, and families aren’t going to be interested,” Peck said. “These programs really, really have to appeal to kids and families for them to show up and come every day.”In fact, research from the RAND Corporation’s National Summer Learning Project indicates that a key ingredient to academic benefits is that students attend high-quality programs for at least two consecutive summers.
  • Summer programs should not focus solely on core academics. 
    “A red flag would be a program that is only focused on academics,” Peck said. “That’s never a positive thing in a summer program. …. It could absolutely backfire” and be detrimental, especially “this coming summer as we’re trying to re-engage young people.”Programs should also include other areas of focus, such as the arts, health and fitness, exploring nature, and explicitly addressing the mental health of students, the speakers said.“We’re coming out of a very traumatic experience that has disproportionately affected low-income [families] and communities of color,” Dworkin said. “We’ll get to math and reading and science and all of this, but I just want to remind ourselves in our rush to just run back to normal that we have not been through a normal experience.”
  • Community partnerships are crucial to summer programs. 
    Not only will they be important for meeting the increased demand from students and families, but they also help address anticipated staffing challenges, Peck said. After a year of increased workloads, teacher burnout and early retirements pose an issue for summer staffing. Community partnerships will help fill these gaps.“Partnerships are key,” Dworkin agreed, whether it’s school systems working with parks, libraries, nonprofits or even corporations that might provide internships.We are collaborating “in a much more intentional and in-depth way with our community partners,” said Johnson of Tulsa Public Schools. The district is working with multiple community organizations to help staff its summer camps and offer non-academic programming. In addition to its core, school-based programming in July, the district is supporting other summer enrichment activities from June through August, with several organizations, including Bike Club Tulsa, 100 Black Men of Tulsa and YMCA of Greater Tulsa.
  • Reporters should connect with the district liaison for community partnerships. “Identifying the person who is the liaison between the district and all these partnerships, that will be the gold mine for [reporters],” Dworkin said, “because that’s going to be the nexus of all of this.”“If a district doesn’t have that person, that’s a red flag,” Dworkin said, particularly during a year with such increased demand.Follow the money: Find out exactly how school districts plan to spend stimulus dollars for summer programming. “Where does the money go? Who’s going to get it?” Dworkin said. How many students will be served?

    It’s also important to understand how districts develop those plans, Peck said. “Is what they’re offering responsive to what kids in their community” really need? “And how do they know? How did they gather that information?”

  • Are districts mapping out their summer plans beyond 2021?
    Dworkin said school systems should already be planning for their summer programs in 2022 and 2023, especially given the ability to spend stimulus dollars over three years.So, when reporters ask about summer plans, it’s a good idea to also inquire about next summer and summer 2023.“We’ve been asking for these investments,” Dworkin said. “So now that we’re gonna get it, you know, can we deliver for more kids and families?”