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Extend Summer and Real-World Enrichment

Paul Barnwell

May 30th was the last day for students at Fern Creek Traditional High School. For most of our students, work, play, and sedentary screen time will fill the gap until we resume classes on August 21st. Few will read, and even fewer will have the opportunities to participate in summer enrichment activities such as visiting museums or attending camps.

Since summer has begun, it's time to address what is a major issue with our current schooling model: Many kids regress academically during the coming months. According to the National Summer Learning Association, the summer months are related to persistent achievement gaps, and during this period parents have trouble finding productive things for their kids to do. Time off from school may also relate to the growing obesity problem with our youth.

That said, I do not propose a traditional school calendar year-round. I've heard about models where schools are nine weeks on, two weeks off year-round, with traditional holiday breaks still in tact. This model will not serve the purpose for what I propose.

Instead, why not slightly extend the summer, and enlist and train teachers and other community members to lead two two-week enrichment sessions over the course of a 14-week summer. Students must sign up for two of the sessions. Let teachers work with small groups of students, pursuing their own passions while giving the kids a chance to experience something new or authentic. Let teachers and students embark on project-based and real-world application of learning without all of the red tape. Anything but the ordinary school day of sit, move to the next class, repeat over and over, and hop on the bus to return home.

With a school year that begins after Labor Day and ends after 160 traditional school days, teachers will not be working more calendar days with this model. Plus, the benefit for students could be immense.

I recently had the privilege to lead a youth media workshop the week after school let out, collaborating with local professionals. We coached six sophomore students who volunteered to come back to school. We partnered them up, matched them with a coach, and set off to tell photo stories about places in Louisville, such as the Belle of Louisville (the oldest operating steamboat in the country) and a glass-blowing studio. When the week ended, students borrowed cameras and asked me when they could do it again. This type of intensely focused, exciting work sparked something. One parent commented that she had never seen her daughter so excited about school, which is ironic. It wasn't school as we know it, but we used the physical space of room 137 as a home base.

Tell me what has a better chance of exciting kids about an idea, activity, and learning in general: 20 days of what we currently have, or a pumped-up summer elective schedule with teachers doing what they love and kids signing up to be a part of it?

Paul Barnwell teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky.

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