Cleveland’s Kinder, Gentler Summer School

a CMSD Summer Learning Experience billboard in Cleveland
Billboards around town try to draw student attention to the Cleveland Municipal School District’s summer learning program. [Patrick O’Donnell / the74million.org]

By Patrick O’Donnell, for the74million.org

Don’t call it summer school. That has a stigma.

It’s not really summer camp either, since math and English will be taught every day.

The Cleveland Municipal School District’s “Summer Learning Experience,” an eight-week program launching next month, instead uses a strategy districts across the country are testing to help students rebound after a year of COVID-19 disrupting their educations and lives.

Schools are avoiding strict academics this summer, betting instead on getting students back to class after a year away with a mix of fun activities and learning. 

The hope is that a softer tone will rekindle students’ joy for learning not just this summer, but for years to come, helping them recover socially and emotionally, not just academically.

“We’re really thinking about how the recovery looks in the next one to three years and not the notion that somehow, in one summer, we’re going to recover everything from the pandemic,” district CEO Eric Gordon said of the voluntary program, adding that mandating attendance for summer classes would backfire and drive students away.

In Cleveland, academics and a menu of fun afternoon activities like music, sports, art or neighborhood improvement projects will be braided together.

“Here’s the reality: The kids who most need to be caught up won’t come to a summer school if they don’t enjoy it,” said teacher Dina Hoeynck, who will run one of the summer learning projects. “If we think of summer school as more of the same, drilling facts into their heads, the same kids will stay behind.”

Cleveland’s “Summer Learning Experience” will be dramatically different from past summer programs. The district has always offered summer school for high school students who need to finish classes to graduate. And in recent years, because Ohio requires third graders to test well in reading before advancing to fourth grade, the district has offered summer reading help to students in first through third grades.

But other grades were never included and non-academic activities were limited.

This year, the district is encouraging any student to attend, regardless of how they did in online classes this year.

“Summer learning can get a negative association sometimes, that you’re doing summer learning because you failed a class or you failed a grade,” said school board member Kathleen Valdez. “I want to emphasize that it’s for all our scholars, that it’s an enrichment and an opportunity for everybody to gain something out of it.”

The new approach to summer school is being adopted by many districts this year, ranging from Ohio districts like Akron and Columbus to districts like El Paso, Texas, San Diego and Miami-Dade.

Cleveland’s plan is also gathering attention, with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt planning to highlight the district when he hosts Wednesday’s broadcast here.

The strategy is backed by President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who included $1.22 billion in the American Rescue Plan aid package this year just for summer programs. They also joined with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association last month to create a Summer Learning & Enrichment Collaborative to stress enrichment and support as much as academics.

And it was championed by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who advised Biden’s transition team on education issues.

“It should not look... like old-fashioned summer school, where you’re drilling and killing, to make up on those worksheets, or maybe now on programmed computer instruction, what you missed,” she said. “It should look much more like where students are involved in inquiry and experimenting and figuring out the answers to questions, outdoors playing and inquiring, looking at puzzles and being together.

Students, she said at a recent forum on academic recovery, had a lot of trauma this past year and need to be welcomed back into schools, not hammered with tasks.

“We have evidence that will increase kids’ capacity to attend, to engage, to want to be back in school and to open their minds,” she said.

Cleveland has not announced a target number of students or budget yet, saying only that CMSD will use American Rescue Plan money to pay for it. 

After two weeks, enrollment in the program is approaching 3,000 students, still a small part of a district of around 36,000 kids. But the district has 24 billboards around the city promoting the summer learning program and just started radio and television ads to attract students. And enrollment has been open only two weeks, with three weeks to go before its June 7 start.

 

This article is presented in partnership with The74Million.org, a national nonprofit newsroom covering education issues. Patrick O'Donnell is a Cleveland-based education reporter.

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