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Rethinking Summer School

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Really, why do we hold summer schools?  Students, mostly in secondary schools, are encouraged to attend summer school once they have failed a course.  This is an attempt to keep them on track for graduation and to avoid a subsequent year schedule for them in classes across grade levels. The threat of summer school is used often to urge students to buckle down and get the job done during the school year.  And, although a recent NPR article reports the lack of data about the success of summer school, we informally know that there are enough students who attend summer school and pass their courses to perpetuate the existence of those intense six summer weeks.

Summer schools traditionally have focused on test prep, helping students know enough information to be able to pass the course's final exam, be it locally or state developed.  What does this say about what we value in education and do we need to change the message we are sending?  What kind of information do we need to collect in order to analyze this summer school question?  And why is it important that we do so?

What Message Are We Sending?
The use of summer school as a threat intended to motivate students to get the job done during the school year may have worked for some. The notion of summer school as a safety value for a bad year may have worked for others.  Generally, in the past, summer schools have included a review of the year's curriculum in order to prepare the students to pass the culminating assessment. Perhaps, it is the focus on one or two classes instead of the five to eight classes taken during the year that makes the difference.  Perhaps, it is the focus on the class and the elimination of the distractions of the social scene that fills the halls during the school year.  We don't know. 

What we do know is the advent of online and blended learning opportunities available to summer schools allows for the teachers whose classes were failed to identify what areas of learning were missed and require those areas be studied and tested, filling the gap that caused the failure. As we consider refining the methods used in summer schools, our message about the value of learning during the school year will become clearer.  If instead of relearning everything taught during the school year, we only focused on those concepts missed during the school year, we are truly honoring our commitment to mastery. Technology provides an opportunity for really targeting the teaching and learning that takes place in summer school. Passing becomes secondary to the value of knowing what they course offered.  Perhaps this is a seemingly subtle message, but it is one worth sending.

What Type of Data Do We Need?
Whether or not we get access to national data, we can certainly collect our own in district and county efforts.  We think the questions may include:

  • Who are the students enrolling in summer school?
  • What courses are they taking in summer school?
  • What is working in those courses during the school year?  And what isn't?
  • Do you use online or blended learning in your summer school?
  • What is the passing rate for students in the summer school?
  • How many attendees are recidivists? What is the rate?
  • Do you collect student feedback at the end of summer school?
  • Do you have a goal set to reduce the need for summer school?  If so how is it worded and communicated?
  • Can summer school be delivered as online and blended learning?

Why Is It Important To Think About Summer School?
Everything we do sends a message about our values.  "Summer school" is about failure...of courses or of making the grade. There may be a few who know it as a place for exceptionalities to bloom but those are few and far between. For most, summer school offers an opportunity to correct a failing grade, gain credit and move on. This communicates that passing is a value within our system.  If passing can't be accomplished from September to June, then we will open the door to work six more weeks in the summer. 

There are at least two reasons why we should think about this.  One is that the value of learning is clear...students must pass a course and demonstrate their mastery of the content, in order to move ahead.  This is important. Our message? That we believe in this is so strongly that we provide a summer school opportunity for them to try again. The second reason is financial.  Summer school costs money.  Few districts are not in need of more and better financing and few children wouldn't benefit from greater resources.  So, if we examine our values, do we eliminate summer school or provide it for all?

Is summer school a Band Aid that has become tradition? Or is summer school a peek into a year round school program? Do we need to reconsider how we use every child's summer, the funds supporting summer school, and the energy it takes to make these six weeks more instructionally powerful than the previous 40 weeks?  What if we rethought how we expend that energy and reduced or eliminated the need for summer school and repurposed that expense to include enrichment for all students?  Most agree students who attend summer school are able students who failed to meet expectations during the school year, in a classroom with those who are achieving and with multiple subjects rather than one or two.  What if we focused on making sure they met those expectations during the school year instead of spending the energy and money to set up and implement the summer school?  Then what would summers look like?

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