After more than a year of COVID restrictions and hybrid learning, summer school is top of mind for school leaders around the country. States and districts are pouring more time, attention, and funding into summer school than ever before in hopes of helping students after a topsy-turvy 14 months in education.
Let’s take a look at the different functions of summer school and strategies for making the time count.
A Profile of the Summer School Student
For many, summer school brings to mind one image: a bored kid who flunked a subject staring out the classroom window while another beautiful sunny day passes her by. The reality is that summer school doesn’t have to be a drag, and can serve myriad functions, from making up missed attendance or academic achievements to getting ahead in a subject one excels in to simply providing childcare.
This year in particular, many states are turning to summer school to try to curb some of the learning losses presented by the pandemic, or at least help students hold steady after a year of unprecedented changes and challenges. With this in mind, students might be taking summer school for the following reasons:
- Make up for learning losses: A “rocky semester” barely scratches the surface of what most schools experienced during COVID-19. As hard as teachers worked to deliver the best education in their power, school districts around the country are facing enormous challenges with large percentages of students failing classes or performing below grade level. Many cities are turning to summer school in hopes that it can help students catch up, but the question remains: Will it be enough?
- Improve grades: Even the brightest students can have an off year. Health problems, family issues, or simply a low interest or aptitude in a subject can lead to failing grades. Summer school gives students a second chance to master key concepts, often with the benefit of more personalized attention and a more focused atmosphere.
- Take specialized classes: Not every school has the resources to offer classes students might be interested in. For example, some students might want to study foreign languages that their school doesn’t offer, or more specialized disciplines such as engineering, computer science, accounting, or creative writing. Summer is a great time for students to take a deep dive into topics they’re interested in and beef up their academic skills before the next school year.
- Prepare for college: Getting ready for college can be a full-time job in itself—and one that some students don’t have time for during the school year. The summer offers an opportunity for students to take SAT- or ACT-prep courses, apply for scholarships, or even get prerequisite classes out of the way before entering their freshman year.
How Effective Is Summer School?
The potential benefits of summer school are obvious: It’s another chance to stay at grade level without having to repeat a year, or to get ahead in certain subjects. Sometimes the regular school year is just not enough time or not the right format for students to master the curriculum for their grade level, or move beyond the curriculum to pursue special interests. Summer school often offers fewer distractions and more one-on-one interaction with teachers, providing students a chance to make up for lost learning.
However, some research shows that summer school doesn’t move the needle nearly as much as educators might hope. For example, one 2020 meta-analysis of studies showed that on average, summer school students make zero gains in math and reading. Some studies of individual programs show positive results, but according to the Hechinger Report, these programs often involved very small groups of students or students from middle-class backgrounds (rather than underserved students, who often need the most help).
So why don’t summer schools work? According to researcher Jean B. Grossman, “Generally, summer programs are not effective because they don’t really engage young people and they’re not run well.” Creating an effective summer school program is rife with challenges, the chief of which is encouraging enrollment and consistent attendance. In addition, teachers are rarely given research-based training or effective curricula, which are shown to lead to positive results when implemented correctly.
Strategies for a Good Summer School Program
So how can schools create a summer school program where learning actually happens? One school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, had the same problems most schools do when offering summer classes: Very few students showed up, and those who did, did so under fear of being left behind a grade.
So the school leaders turned to research-based practices to figure out how to create a summer school experience that was fun for kids and worked with their families’ schedules. The result? Attendance soared.
Here are six strategies vetted by research to help your summer school have the impact you hope for:
- Create a fun, upbeat atmosphere to encourage attendance. Even with the looming threat of being held back, it can be incredibly tough to get students to show up to summer school consistently. And it’s easy to understand why: The weather is nice, every other student is out having fun, and summer school is often populated by students who aren’t fans of school in the first place. That’s why it’s essential to make summer school appealing as an incentive to attend; after all, if students don’t come through the door in the first place, they won’t learn at all.
There are two main dimensions to making summer school appealing:
- Get beyond math and reading. Typically, these two subjects are what drive summer school attendance. However, research shows that offering other subjects and activities helps students feel more connected to the school and more willing to challenge themselves academically. So consider including music, art, dance, and field trips to the theater or a museum.
- Focus on relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that attendance is higher when students have a good relationship with their teachers. When students know a smile and a warm greeting is waiting for them at school, they’ll feel more connected and motivated to show up.
- Work with families to remove barriers. So what do you do if you’ve created an appealing program but kids still aren’t showing up? There might be obstacles you’re not aware of. For example, have you reached out to parents personally and given them ample notice to plan for summer school? Do kids need transportation? Will you offer full-day programs that match parents’ work schedules? Will you have options for all grade levels to accommodate families with multiple kids? These are all possible barriers that could keep families from being able to participate.
- Offer perks for teachers. Students aren’t the only ones who might feel burnt out before ever showing up to the summer school classroom. Teachers often sign up for summer school to make some extra money, but that doesn’t mean they’re thrilled to jump from a stressful spring semester into a rigorous summer school program. According to Chalkbeat, some perks you can offer teachers to excite them for summer school (besides money) include “small class sizes, a pre-planned curriculum, and the opportunity to work half days or to teach just one subject consistently.”
- Strongly consider in-person options. Unfortunately, thanks to COVID, many schools got a crash course in the struggles and drawbacks of online learning. Even with excellent teachers, the hurdle for meaningful student engagement is higher in the online space. For example, one study of a 100% online summer math program showed that students didn’t make any learning gains regardless of engagement level. Add to these concerns the motivation issues surrounding summer school, and you’re looking at a mountain you might not be able to scale in just a few weeks of learning.
- Bridge the gap to next school year. Sometimes, summer school can feel like an enigma existing between the semesters, not really relating to either the grade the student just completed or the one he or she is about to enter. That’s why one school in New Mexico began to treat summer school like an “early start” to the next school year, including placing students with the teacher they will have in the fall (when possible) and using curriculum that will help them transition into the standards they will be mastering next year.
- Have realistic expectations. As discussed above, research shows that summer school often doesn’t lead to huge learning gains—and that’s okay, as long as you keep your expectations in line. Especially this year, it’s tempting to hope that summer school will be able to close large learning gaps, but realistically, the goal should be to prevent the summer slide and make some small gains to prepare students for the next school year. School leaders should view summer programs as one of several strategies to help students catch up—not the sole tool. And keep in mind, academic progress isn’t the only benefit of summer school; keeping students engaged in school and in relationship with their teachers and peers will have intangible positive effects that will carry over into the new year.