The Benefits of Summer School – An “In The Trenches” Perspective

This last week, as I wrapped up another summer school program with my local school district, I sat down and reflected on the difference it makes for my underprivileged students.

First time with Paper Mache!

In my county, the school system offers three different programs for students attending Title One Elementary Schools. I’ll talk about two of them briefly, but mostly I want to focus on the benefits I’ve seen for students who attend these free summer programs and why I think all students at Title 1 Schools should be offered them. Below is a graph from  the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) – the organization that designed the Measurement of Annual Progress (MAP) tests that are used by many school systems to chart the growth of math and reading skills. While I won’t state that these tests are perfect – no test is – Every single graph shows the drop of student performance during the summer, with some students losing 20% of their progress during the year.

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As an educator, I’ve seen this firsthand in the classroom, but even more so among my students of color. Students of color are less likely to have access to high-quality summer programs that limit or even counter summer ‘brain drain’, and the programs offered by MCPS are designed to eliminate this brain drain in students at our Title One schools. There are three programs – ELO-SAIL, ELO-STEP, and BELL (Lots of abbreviations, I know!) What you really need to know is that ELO means Extended Learning Opportunities. SAIL is for ALL students going into Kindergarten through 2nd Grade. STEP is an academic enrichment program for 3rd through 5th graders (separated by grade level), while BELL serves the same age group in an academic support capacity, but functions more like summer camp with reading and math goals and field trips.

So, to the benefits for kids.

  1. Consistency, Consistency, Consistency – You know how it always seems like students/your kids always forget what school is like when they roll into the classroom in August/September? (Have you all forgotten to raise your hand in the summer? Or where backpacks go in the room with hooks?) Yes – summer school provides a consistent school atmosphere where kids have the structures of school without some of the same pressures (like grades).

    Science time outside
  2. Food & childcare – For families in title one schools, summer can be a time of worry and concern, or a simply a time of going without. Title One schools are identified by the high numbers of students receiving Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) at school, and without access to free breakfast and lunch (and in some cases, afterschool snacks or dinner), summer is a time of nutritional hell. Summer school provides hot meals twice a day for all participating students. The idea of childcare is similar –  students are learning (and having fun), and it is far better for students to be at school than sitting around at home unsupervised.
  3. Academics – Students in SAIL and BELL received guided math and reading instruction, matching their level and needs and reviewing and previewing concepts for the next school year. For Kindergarten students, SAIL is, for some, their first experienced with school, and these five weeks are a much needed time to teach them valuable concepts like sharing, lining up, asking to go to the bathroom, etc. For the STEP students, they get exposure to middle school science concepts and practiced with higher-order thinking skills and academic skills that they do not get access to during the school year. Along with the 2nd graders in SAIL, all STEP kids get access to coding opportunities and independent research time.

But what about teachers? What do we get. Oh boy, this is the most important part.

  1. New Ideas and New Opportunities – Ever wanted to teach a different grade level, but didn’t want to leave your own school? Summer school is for you – you can try out the grade level, see if you like it! While you’re at it, gain access to different curriculum (and actually have to use them) which can improve your own curricular knowledge. As someone with a Master’s degree in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, I love being able to explore different science curricula because I can see how it links into the middle school material (and thus be better prepared to either help my students make those connections or scaffold to build on what they know)IMG_1439
  2. Paycheck – Oh yes, we’re not paid year round so this fits the bill!
  3. Flexibility and creativity – Without high stakes testing, many teachers are given the flexibility (within reason) to implement the required portions on their own. This summer I had to implement both 4th and 5th grade math and science curricula, and had the flexibility to do so in my own way.
  4. Opportunity to implement new structures/ideas without pressure – Summer School is the perfect place to implement new procedures and classroom structures, including behavior management tools, without pressure. If it doesn’t work, change it up, but with only 4-5 weeks of time, if it doesn’t work you’re not stuck with the long term consequences. I used this summer school time to work on building up my mindfulness instruction and created some cool projects to support students.
  5. Opportunity to counter the inequities in our county – from promoting middle school magnet programs to providing enrichment

End Result – My students loved it, their parents loved it, I certainly enjoyed it. So if you’re an educator wondering whether or not to do summer school, give it a try and think about how you can improve your practices. If you’re a school system, give your teachers the opportunity to be flexible in improving their practices and keeping your students engaged over the summer. If you’re a parent, wondering whether or not to send your kid to a summer school program – do your research and then send them! It’s a great opportunity for everyone.


So what do you think? Does your system run summer school? Is it any good? Anything I missed?

Author: Daniel Ottalini

Author of the Award-Winning Steam Empire Chronicles Series

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