By Joe Heim, Valerie Strauss and Laura Meckler
In the past, no two words provoked more dread for American students. And many teachers didn’t feel much differently. The mention of summer school conjured up images of sweaty classrooms and dreary assignments meted out as makeup work for a year of flunked tests, missing projects or excessive absences. It wasn’t meant as punishment, but it could feel like it.
As schools approach the end of a full year of pandemic learning, however, summer school is being reimagined and broadened into what is likely to be the most expansive — and expensive — summer programming in modern history, funded in large part by the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. Education leaders see it as a desperately needed remedy for a calamitous school year that left many students across the country struggling and falling behind.
The Education Department — in partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association — is launching an effort this month to encourage states to use American Rescue Plan funding for programs that will address lost instructional time as well as other activities, especially for underserved communities.
Some school districts that have struggled to afford offering summer school courses in the past are now able to make them available with the funding allocated by Congress. In fact, in the American Rescue Plan, Congress set aside $1.2 billion that states, districts and schools must use to build successful summer programs. And it requires districts to spend 20 percent of their funding on mitigation of learning loss, which could include summer school.
Philadelphia schools superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced two weeks ago that the district would provide summer school opportunities “for any family who wants their child in some sort of program.” And earlier this month, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill requiring that districts offer students at least six weeks of summer school. On Tuesday, the East St. Louis, Ill., school district board extended its school year by adding an additional month of required classes.
More than just classroom instruction
“What’s unique to this moment to some degree is the need for a comprehensive whole-child approach,” said Aaron Philip Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. “There has been real trauma and negative impacts on communities of color and low-income communities. More people lost their jobs and died in certain communities. More need social-emotional learning than ever.”
“You can’t say to kids, ‘Welcome back, we’re glad to see you. We’ll ignore the trauma you have had. Now let’s do reading and math,’ ” Dworkin said. He added that he hopes districts are not just “throwing together” programs with new federal money.
Along with academics, he said, students will need health and fitness programs as well as artistic opportunities. “A lot of research shows that students who do art and academics do better academically than students who are in academic-only programs,” he said.
A problem for summer school, Dworkin said, is that it has historically had a reputation for being punitive and mandatory for just a few remedial students.
“We need to make it great so that everybody wants to come, no stigma attached,” he said. “That’s the shift.”
In the San Diego Unified School District, the school board recently approved $22 million for a comprehensive summer program that includes academic learning — in person and remote — as well as other learning experiences.
“We’re calling it a summer ‘experience’ because it’s summer school like no other before,” said Superintendent Cindy Marten at her Senate confirmation hearing as No. 2 at the U.S. Education Department.