Can Fort Worth Summer School Help Reverse COVID Learning Loss?

Tequila Lockridge, a leveled literacy interventionist at UCC Polytechnic Center, leads a small group of students through a leveled literacy intervention session during the Summer Learning Program July 13, 2021 in Fort Worth.

Tequila Lockridge, a leveled literacy interventionist at UCC Polytechnic Center, leads a small group of students through a leveled literacy intervention session during the Summer Learning Program July 13, 2021 in Fort Worth.

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For a second year, Fort Worth school officials are pinning high hopes on the district’s summer learning program as a way to reach students who have fallen behind during the pandemic.

The district’s summer apprenticeship program began on Monday. Like last year’s summer school, district officials say this year’s program will combine academic support for students who need it with enrichment activities that will keep students engaged and excited about school. idea of ​​coming to school.

The director of a national organization promoting summer learning says the combination of academic and fun activities is the foundation of any effective summer learning program.

“We want it to be so engaging that you can make it voluntary, and people still want to come,” said Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit.

Texas students have lost ground in reading and math

Students in the school district of Fort Worth and across Texas have lost significant ground in math and reading during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Fort Worth, only about one in four third-graders achieved grade-level results in reading on state tests last year. Only 17% of third graders achieved grade level results in mathematics. At the time, local and state education officials blamed the effects of school closings and remote learning. State testing data supported this explanation: Declines were largest in districts where a high percentage of students were attending school remotely.

The results of this year’s STAAR tests have not yet been released. But at a February meeting of the Fort Worth District Board of Directors, Sara Arispe, the district’s associate superintendent for accountability and data quality, predicted no growth in reading and only modest improvement in math. .

During a board briefing in April, Jerry Moore, the district’s chief of schools, said the district hopes to use summer school as part of its strategy to reverse this downward trend. Summer presents a key opportunity for school districts and their community partners to fast-track students who have fallen behind due to educational disruption caused by the pandemic, and also provide fun enrichment activities, Moore said. .

When district leaders began planning for this year’s summer learning program, they reached out to the U.S. Department of Education, the Texas Education Agency, and the Wallace Foundation, a group of New York-based education advocacy, to learn more about successful summer apprenticeship programs across the country. , Moore said. The district wanted to move beyond the summer school program it offered in the past, which focused primarily on credit recovery, he said.

The Fort Worth Summer Learning Plan includes 25 programs

The district’s summer learning initiative will not be a single program, Moore said, but rather 25 separate programs tailored to the needs of particular groups of students. In addition to its regular summer program, the district will offer programs for bilingual students and English language learners, as well as students in special education programs, Moore said. Nationally, all of these groups have been particularly hard hit by the academic effects of the pandemic.

District officials will know the program was successful if they see the results in the test scores of students who participated, Moore said.

The program will be funded by a combination of $1.6 million in state funding and $3.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief money the district received as part of the U.S. bailout. , which was signed into law in March 2021. School districts are required to use at least 20% of the federal funding they receive from the plan to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss. In advice to school districts, US Department of Education officials specifically mentioned summer learning programs as a possible use of this funding.

Last year, the district added a strong enrichment focus to its summer school programming, Moore said. This change was successful last year, he said, so district officials decided to continue it during this year’s summer program. District leaders wanted the program to go beyond the classroom and learning, he said.

The district plans to partner with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History to offer enrichment activities, Moore said. The vocational and technical training department and the district bookmobile will also offer enrichment programs, he said.

Partnerships with summer schools bear fruit

Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, said partnerships between school districts and community organizations can be fruitful. Districts and their partner organizations each have their own resources and areas of strength, he said, and summer programs tend to be stronger when they pool those resources. Summer is a good time for districts to build relationships with these organizations because there is more time, Dworkin said.

“Everyone wants to work together,” he said. “But once the school year starts, everyone is so busy it’s really hard to do that.”

Many nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Club and government youth-serving agencies like libraries and parks departments have summer programs that could be good partnerships for school districts, Dworkin said. But other potential partners are not so obvious. Some businesses that don’t typically serve young people are getting involved in youth activities during the summer, he said. And some hospitals run summer programs to teach kids from underrepresented backgrounds what it’s like to be a doctor.

Finding these programs and figuring out what a partnership might look like requires a certain amount of what Dworkin calls “creative community matchmaking.” It is a process that can only be managed locally, he said.

“It’s not made in Austin, and it’s not made in Washington, DC,” he said. “It’s done community by community.”

Summer school is not just class work

Dworkin’s organization has advocated for summer apprenticeship programs that place greater emphasis on enrichment activities for decades. Historically, summer programs have been compulsory, remedial and solely focused on academics, he said. A good summer apprenticeship program is none of that, Dworkin said. It should include an academic component, he said, but it should also focus on enrichment activities that interest students. Although some students may be required to be there, the most effective programs are engaging and exciting enough that students want to be there, whether they have to be there or not, he said.

School officials should also ensure their summer programs focus on building relationships, Dworkin said. The relationship between students and adults should be an even higher priority than academics, he said. If students do not feel a strong positive connection with the teacher who asks them to spend part of their summer vacation coming to school to learn reading and math, the education they receive there will not will make no difference.

Before the pandemic, summer was the least equitable time in education, Dworkin said. Affluent families would spend thousands of dollars sending their children to summer programs that would allow them to explore a wide range of interests, he said. But the poorest families usually didn’t have access to these programs or didn’t even know they existed. But now, as more and more school leaders recognize the importance of summer school in helping their students catch up, many districts are beginning to make these kinds of programs available to all students, did he declare.

Last year, in the face of steep school declines, school officials across the country recognized the importance of effective summer learning programs, Dworkin said. But the federal money to fund those programs didn’t arrive until March, leaving district leaders scrambling to expand their summer offerings at the last minute, he said. As a result, the quality of these programs across the country was mixed.

This year, school leaders had more time to prepare and also had the chance to learn what worked and what didn’t work last year, Dworkin said. There is still a lot of need for these programs, not only in academic terms but also in terms of mental health, he said.

The kinds of extracurricular activities that made students feel connected to school, such as recess, field trips and plays, were among the first things disrupted early in the pandemic. This left many students feeling isolated, Dworkin said. Some students still struggle with the social and emotional ramifications of this isolation, he said. Summer can be a great time to help these students work through those feelings and make the connections they’ve been missing, he said.

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Silas Allen is an education journalist who focuses on challenges and possible solutions in the Fort Worth school system. Allen graduated from the University of Missouri. Before coming to the Star-Telegram, he covered education and other topics in the Stillwater and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma newspapers. He was also editor of the Dallas Observer, where he wrote about K-12 and higher education. He was born and raised in southeastern Missouri.

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