Allegheny County students look to summer school after a difficult year. But can they catch up?

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Empty classroom with empty desks

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Six days before 2,500 Pittsburgh Public Schools students were scheduled to arrive at the Summer B.O.O.S.T. learning camp, the program was postponed by a week. The district said it was scrambling to plug staffing shortages and slash enrollment.

When the camp convenes today, it will be with additional hires the district made in the past week to serve 1,500 students with high academic need. Around 1,000 students were told they can't participate.

The no-cost Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] program is part of the district’s larger efforts to remediate collective learning loss in the summer months, particularly pressing after a year of remote instruction in the pandemic.

Students across Allegheny County are venturing to a blend of summer learning programs, wellness programs, summer camps and credit recovery programs, still carrying much of the stress from the 2020-21 school year.

The number of students to attend summer school this year nationwide is anticipated to surpass the 3.3 million who attended mandatory or optional summer school in 2019, before the pandemic.

But how much learning recovery is realistic to expect in these summer months?

Well-designed summer programs are most effective when students can return summer after summer, according to the Learning Policy Institute.

Districts like PPS who remained remote a majority of the year will need the summer months to make gains in recovering learning loss or at least to keep it from worsening. Instructional time and curriculum coverage were significantly lower for schools that remained fully remote for the majority of the year, according to research by RAND Corporation.

PublicSource reviewed summer program offerings from more than 10 districts across the county. All districts offered some type of summer learning program, and multiple offered various programs for credit recovery, wellness, enrichment and/or learning. Several were created in response to the pandemic.

Some districts that shared their summer plans with PublicSource:

  • The West Allegheny School District will offer its K-8 students a new summer program designed to minimize learning loss through a blend of academics and enrichment and art activities. It will also offer credit recovery and its annual West Allegheny Virtual Academy for high school students.
  • The North Allegheny School District expanded its credit recovery options for students. It will also offer a summer academy for K-5 students that offers a blend of activities art, science and language studies.
  • The Upper St. Clair School District is offering a range of credit recovery programs for high school students, and learning programs for English and math for elementary and middle school students. The district is also offering a summer wellness program for ninth and 10th grades and a reading camp for kindergartners and first graders.
  • South Fayette will host a K-5 Summer Learning Program for reading and math.
  • The Moon Area School District [MASD] will offer a new four-week summer remediation program open to the district’s kindergarten through sixth-grade students for grade-level English and math remediation. The program goal, as with many other programs, is to address gaps in learning that occurred as a result of “the irregular instructional schedule caused by the pandemic,” said MASD Director of Student Services Mike Haslett.

 

Districts will need to be strategic in how best to use the summer. “It would be unrealistic to think that a summer program could teach all of the content that wasn't taught in this past year,” said Catherine Augustine, a senior policy analyst at RAND Corporation.

“Coming out of this is going to be a reentry period of sorts,” Augustine said.

A strategic summer

Experts agreed that while some learning loss can be made up, the opportunities for gains this summer are more likely in the areas of mental health, peer socialization, social and emotional learning and overall wellness.

President Joe Biden’s administration requires districts to devote dollars from the most recent federal relief package to develop and fund high-quality summer learning and enrichment programs, especially to address gaps and needs for student groups most impacted by COVID. More than $1 billion of the American Rescue Plan’s school-focused funding will be directed to summer learning and enrichment programs.

The staffing troubles at the PPS summer program are not unique to the district.

Many teachers and paraprofessionals who would normally staff programs are desiring a break after a toilsome school year. Nearly one in four teachers said in a recent national study that they were likely to leave their jobs by the end of the 2020–2021 school year, compared to one in six teachers before the pandemic. Across the country, districts are incentivizing teachers to sign up for summer programs with benefits that include  bonuses and child care.

In her research on how effective summer learning programs can be at improving math and reading outcomes for students, Augustine learned that programs were more effective when students spent more time on a given task and engaged with district-certified teachers who intimately understand the grade-level needs for students.

Summer programs could be especially valuable if they offer ways for students to process the year they just experienced.

With increasing vaccination rates and in-person offerings, summer programs can offer resources such as therapists and programs specialized to address social and emotional challenges. Kids will be playing with each other and seeing teachers face-to-face, and that’s its own kind of recovery.

“There'll be a lot of those opportunities for kids to get back to being kids again,” said Associate Professor Thomas Akiva, who works in the Department of Health and Human Development at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I think the majority of kids this summer will have some kind of experiences that sort of help their whole person,” Akiva said.

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Catherine Taipe.

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