Students Need Summer Learning That Doesn’t Feel Like School

Last spring, we looked to summer with hopes that the 2021-2022 school year would be different, easier, better. In many ways it was. Students returned to their school buildings, we had months of lower COVID rates and some of kids’ favorite learning strategies—like group projects, stations and flexible seating—came back.

In other ways, this school year was harder. Earlier this year, America’s pediatricians and the US Surgeon General declared youth mental health a national emergency. We are in the midst of historic teachers and substitute shortages. COVID remains, and students are still getting sick, or going to school with fears of catching the virus.

Many students and staff are simply limping towards the last day of this school year. The cumulative effects of two years of pandemic life have caught up and the consequences are more apparent than ever, from mental health issues, to troubling student behaviors, to sheer burnout and exhaustion. This was also the year when schools became the centerpiece of America’s culture wars—with educators being regularly accused of and reported for teaching divisive topics, infringing on parental rights, and—in most recently—being labeled as “groomers” and accused of pedophilia.

Now, with summer almost here, district and school teams are making final plans about what to do with students over break. According to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, more than half of districts plan to use federal recovery dollars to support summer programming. Beyond learning loss—or what some now call “unfinished learning”—these decision makers must consider the longer-term recovery needs and realities of students and staff. For many, last summer focused on lost learning; this summer should focus on making sure kids are ready and well when next year starts.

Thanks to the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund (ESSER) schools have extra funds and flexibility to offer all kinds of summer learning experiences. Last year, ESSER dollars propelled innovative district-community partnerships, which offered much more than “summer school.” In places like San Diego and Santa Fe, school districts worked alongside youth programs and museums to offer experiences that felt and looked more like summer camp.

To get a sense of what schools should prioritize in their summer planning, I reached out to some of the most innovative and beloved summer learning programs to ask them what they are focusing on in the months ahead. All three are different in design, but are going into this summer with five shared priorities: giving kids learning options that (1) don’t feel like school, (2) focus on healthy relationships, (3) provide voice and choice, ( 4) are joyful and fun, (5) are able to re-energize and replenish. Here are some of the most innovative programs operating today.

Ready, Set, Summer

Last year, Tulsa initiated “Ready, Set, Summer” a joint effort between Tulsa Public Schools and the Opportunity Project, to offer summer learning opportunities to all Tulsa Public School Students. Almost every school had its own program, offering children enrichment and acceleration activities, with a focus on joyful learning over academic remediation.

This year, “Ready, Set, Summer” is happening at 21 school sites across the cities, offering all public school families full-day, full-week summer learning options supervised by certified teachers, youth workers, and teaching assistants. As Tulsa Public Schools’ Director of Expanded Learning, Jessica Goodman, told me, “Ready, Set, Summer” gives students plenty of ways to learn in fun and innovative ways. The proof of their success is evident in the numbers. Jessica shared that some summer sites have already filled up, with many teachers saying they’re excited to be a part of the program again. According to staff surveys, last summer was “cup filling,” teachers’ favorite summer ever, and a much-needed opportunity to enjoy students and the school community.

RESCHOOL Colorado

Farther West, RESCHOOL Colorado is almost a decade into approaching summer learning and out-of-school time programming in new and different ways. Instead of opening schools as summer learning hubs, RESCHOOL distributes “learning dollars” directly to kids and families, enabling them to access and afford whatever learning opportunities they want.

According to founding Executive Director Amy Anderson, last summer RESCHOOL gave $400,000 directly to 800 young people ($500 each). Among the many experiences kids pursued, some of the most powerful were collective learning experiences. Amy told me about a group of Denver-based high schoolers who decided time to learn how to cook together because they had each started cooking more at home to help their working parents during the pandemic. RESCHOOL provided $1,000 to the group, which paid for a subscription to a meal kit delivery service and the chance to zoom with each other to enjoy shared cooking sessions.

Live Oak Camp

In New Orleans, Live Oak Wilderness Camp is preparing for its eighth summer of campers. This unique camp model is intentionally designed to bring together kids from different parts of New Orleans for the equalizing experience of summer camp. After summer, campers stay connected through citywide year-round events.

As program director, Lucy Scholz, explained, camp provides kids with an independent and formative experience where kids are given choice, freedom, independence, and ample opportunities to build relationships with other kids like them, or different from them. More than anything, camp encourages collective community, where kids are free to be themselves. After this past year of community division, culture wars, and continued hardship and loss, camp-like experiences provide kids with badly needed opportunities to build social skills, nurture relationships with people who are different from them and to simply enjoy childhood.

Summer strategizing

As educators decide on the priorities and structure for “summer school,” the easiest thing to do is whatever was done last year. But the best thing is to focus on staff and student needs and design from there.

Live Oak, RESCHOOL, and Ready, Set, Summer illuminate three different ways to meet students’ learning and developmental needs this summer. These examples also make it clear that schools can’t and shouldn’t do this work alone. Partnerships with summer programs and out-of-school time providers will distribute the workload load, better ensure quality programming and adequate staffing, and provide students and staff with the experiences they need to thrive this summer, and be ready and well next school year.

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