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Colorado school districts look toward summer to help their students make up for coronavirus learning loss

A group of Colorado school districts and educators is calling for summer planning to start now, with a community-wide approach across the state

Jessica Moore works with students in small groups on reading comprehension during St. Vrain's 2019 Project Launch Summer Academy. (Handout)
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Though many Colorado students still have at least 100 days left before they reach the end of the academic year, many school district leaders and education advocates are already focused on what comes next.

In a year when learning has become routinely unpredictable, with kids zooming back and forth between in-person instruction and remote classes, summer is likely to take on a different role — one of intense recovery.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that summer break will no longer be a break. But education leaders and advocates are urging state and local officials to begin thinking now about how summer could be engineered to help kids regain lost academic footing while experiencing a sense of adventure and connection they’ve largely been deprived of since last March.

Enter the recovery summer.

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A group of 28 school districts, education advocates and community organizations on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis and Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, and local and state leaders calling for more thought around structuring a productive summer for kids and investing in summer as a season for learning. Schools, they say, cannot be solely responsible for reimagining how summer plays into students’ academic success and overall development.

“Schools will be critical hubs for recovery, but they can’t do it all, especially this summer,” the letter reads. “Community-based approaches this summer will be essential for meeting the moment. This will require agencies and organizations to work with new partners, braid and blend funds, seek out opportunities to break down traditional silos, and develop strategies to distribute federal funds aimed at supporting student needs over the summer.”

Part of the objective behind a recovery summer centers on helping catch students up in any subjects where their progress may have stalled during the school year. It’s similar to traditional summer school, meant to help some students with credit recovery and others with avoiding the “summer slide” — which happens as students regress in their academic skills during summer months. The summer slide could be compounded this year by pandemic-related interruptions to courses.

However, those who wrote the letter place more emphasis on reconnecting students to their peers and their communities and redesigning the look and feel of summer than they do on focusing exclusively on learning loss. 

Putting the attention on learning loss suggests that kids and families did something wrong, said Rebecca Holmes, president and CEO of the Colorado Education Initiative, which worked with Early Milestones to convene the group of education leaders and advocates.

A middle school student works on a sensor during an 2019 engineering camp at the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools. (Handout)

In reality, she added, families across demographics have gotten creative during the pandemic to accelerate their child’s learning in different ways, whether teaching math through cooking, rebuilding a relationship with a grandparent or pursuing a passion. She doesn’t want those kinds of lessons and experiences to be discounted.

Holmes also noted that in responding to learning loss, schools and communities need to expand their efforts beyond academics. Prioritizing academics above all else tends to be counterproductive as it doesn’t effectively motivate kids to advance in their learning. The letter urges local and state leaders to think about the “whole child” — beyond the bounds of academics — by also offering them social opportunities and opening up free access to social emotional services and counseling services. 

One of the most important ways to help kids this summer is by ensuring that their learning experiences incorporate healthy relationships with peers and adults, Holmes said.

Like many educators, she worries about what will happen this fall when students’ academic skills will likely be all over the map — even more so than during a regular school year. Even in the best of conditions, schools struggle to meet individual students where they’re at. It’s a system flaw, Holmes said, as the broader education system is not designed to respond to kids at different learning levels.

The shape recovery takes will vary from community to community as the virus has impacted regions of the state differently.

Giving families one of the loudest voices

The groups behind the letter also are pushing their home communities to plan for summer experiences with equity top of mind.

The lack of equity within summer opportunities concerns Holmes, who noted that pricey summer camps often dangle out of reach for many families. Some providers are working to remove barriers to summer opportunities, she said, adding “summer is just a really compelling lever for closing access gaps.”

Those gaps hold some kids back in learning and in being able to take advantage of the kinds of fun activities that help them discover their strengths and passions.

The authors of the letter highlight the need to support “chronically underserved students,” including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian-American and multi-racial students along with students who are learning English, living in poverty, facing homelessness, being abused and neglected, and those requiring special education services.

Equitable education opportunities have also risen as a top priority for Polis.

“(Gov.) Polis is focused on working with state agency leaders, educators, communities, and the General Assembly to invest in our students and in programs that work to close persistent equity gaps that not only emerged during 2020 but have perpetuated across the state for decades,” spokesperson Conor Cahill said in a statement. “It is critical that leaders at every level, whether in school districts, local, state, and federal government, remain focused on ensuring that our students are given every opportunity to recover from the learning loss that COVID-19 has caused.”

It’s necessary to start planning for summer in the thick of winter because it’s simply going to take time. Colorado doesn’t have “robust public infrastructure around summer,” Holmes said. Where silos currently exist — between organizations that provide mental health counseling and social emotional support and schools and organizations that offer summer programming, for instance — communities will have to start threading those disparate groups together.

Educators are worried about students in all grade levels, but there’s even greater concern for younger students — in pre-K through fifth grade — and for high schoolers. Holmes said that Colorado’s youngest learners have arguably had the least success with remote learning and now need summer interventions to help bolster their learning. High school students also need a lot of attention to keep them on track and prevent them from failing courses and potentially dropping out, Holmes said.

The letter outlines six strategies for reaching the goals of addressing children’s full spectrum of needs and ensuring all kids have access to summer opportunities. The strategies are framed around providing support to families and maximizing the community systems already in place.

When it comes to helping families, educators and advocates are vocal about giving parents the space to share details about their child’s needs around academics and overall well-being.

“For kids who have either had to be remote or have chosen to be remote learning, their families have had the most contact with them they’ve ever had and their families know them best,” Holmes said, “and so to have summer organizations and schools be able to design for family partnership and family engagement has probably never been as important as it is right now.”

Other focus areas include allocating funding directly to families — in a limited way for summer months — so that all children can access summer enrichment and partnering with the state to launch “a one-stop-shop,” where parents can explore all the summer services and support available.

In drawing entire communities into summer program planning, the group that wrote the letter wants to see a variety of safe places open to kids this summer at no cost — whether they need child care, summer school, tutoring or conducive out-of-school experiences. That may mean ensuring students have free or low-cost transportation options or even delivering services right to their homes and neighborhoods, through mobile preschools, book mobiles and summer learning pods.

They also look to community staples, like libraries, parks, recreation centers and museums, to partner with others in providing food services, counseling and tutoring services to kids.

One more idea: Finding innovative ways to help students with credit recovery. That could include looking outside the classroom to collaborations with businesses, where students could work and build experience that would ultimately count toward their graduation requirements.

Tackling “unfinished learning” through summer academies and camps

Among the districts that signed onto the letter is Alamosa School District, which is already planning for summer by pulling together a recovery committee, composed of students, parents teachers, administrators and community members. The committee will meet weekly for about six weeks to devise possible program models for the summer. 

The committee was convened to allow the community to participate in making plans for completing what Interim Superintendent Marsha Cody describes as “unfinished learning.”

Cody worries about students having fallen behind during the school year and is equally concerned about the social emotional health of her students.

Her district, which has close to 2,200 students, has a few ideas on the table, among them, summer academies, in which a student could take a course for credit recovery for part of the day and spend the rest of it in a paid, work-based learning experience related to their college or career pathway, Cody said.

A second idea revolves around secondary summer camps, which would give students opportunities to take part in sports and activities they may have missed out on to some degree during the school year because of the pandemic. The activities could include sports, theater and photography. Students attending the summer camps would also get a dose of academics, whether they needed credit recovery or supplemental learning and tutoring. Cody hopes to integrate different content areas like science and math, language arts and social studies.

For the district’s younger learners, Cody’s team is considering a program that would address content students need to master before moving into the next grade level and tying a theme into that program. For example, teachers from other countries, like Mexico or Guatemala, could teach arts and crafts, storytelling and dance reflective of their cultures — cultures they share with some of the students in the rural district. 

On Fridays, Cody said, students would take field trips across the state, as far as Denver. Many Alamosa students haven’t left the San Luis Valley, she said, so those trips would stretch their perspectives and experiences.

Sarah Coniglio works with students in small groups on reading comprehension during St. Vrain’s 2019 Project Launch Summer Academy. (Handout)

In St. Vrain Valley School District, located in Longmont, Superintendent Don Haddad and his staff are preparing to expand a summer initiative known as Project Launch. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade will come into classrooms four days a week to work on math and literacy skills. The district provides transportation and meals. It previously limited the program to students in grades K-3.

High schoolers will receive the same kind of support in math and language arts.

A similar jump-start program will pick back up two weeks before school begins in the fall, giving students a jump-start in algebra and language arts primarily for high schoolers.

The district also recently received a $2.8 million Relevant Information to Strengthen Education (RISE) grant — a state grant funded by federal coronavirus relief dollars — that it will use to help five smaller districts replicate its Project Launch programming to educate their own K-5 students.

Throughout the rest of the summer St. Vrain will continue programming in robotics and technology, artificial intelligence and virtual reality and will also offer traditional summer school to high school students.

Last summer, much of the district’s focus within Project Launch centered on K-3 students and those needing additional academic support. This year, it’s open to all students.

Haddad didn’t sign onto the letter submitted to state and local leaders, but he shares the authors’ push for a reimagined summer.

Haddad believes the entire state needs to look at a different calendar for instruction, noting students don’t spend enough time during the year in the classroom.

“We need to do more to expose our students to high-quality learning more days out of the school year,” he said. “I think it’s just imperative.”

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