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Drones, yoga, and math: Summer school looks different this year for Michigan students

Young students are lined up in front of a white board before participating in a classroom activity.
In many Michigan schools, classes that allow students to catch up academically are sharing space with fun classes like a drone technology class being offered in the Detroit school district.
Youngrae Kim for Chalkbeat

After a challenging pandemic school year, some Michigan students are heading back to class for the summer. But it’s not your typical summer school program.

Educators say that while students need summer classes that help offset pandemic-related learning losses, higher student failure rates, and concerns about mental health, it is also important that they have classes that create positive school-based experiences and rebuild their social and emotional well-being.

“We know the only way to move them forward is to take care of the whole person,” said Donna Barash, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the West Bloomfield School District.

When summer classes begin July 12 in the Detroit school district, students can take typical classes to catch up academically or more fun classes like drone technology, cooking, engineering, and soccer.

“Usually people think of summer school as remediation,” Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said during a recent press conference. “There certainly will be an opportunity to make up classes that were missed … but we are expanding performing arts, music, athletics, because we want students to be active, involved, and engaging with one another. And that’s usually more exciting than doing basic reading.”

The district used federal stimulus funds to expand summer offerings this year and it appears to be paying off. About 10,000 students have signed up for programs, Vitti said Wednesday. That’s far more students than the last two school years, which each had slightly fewer than 5,000 enrolled.

In West Bloomfield, the district created a camp-like summer program for younger students and a high school summer experience that includes yoga, meditation, and field trips for “team building and establishing a connection to school,” Barash said.

In the Novi Community School District, hundreds of students from across Oakland County will get academic help during summer school. They’ll also be able to enroll in art, music, and theater courses, said RJ Webber, assistant superintendent.

At Detroit Merit Charter Academy, Principal Sandra Martin-Terry said earlier this year that she was putting together the Cadillac of summer programs for her K-8 charter school. Mornings will center around subjects such as math and reading while afternoons will have hands-on science experiments, creative writing, and geography-centric games.

“I’m hoping we can get the participation we want this year because we need it more than ever,” Martin-Terry said.

Summer school or summer learning is a mainstay of public and private education. But education was interrupted during the pandemic. During the spring, districts from Detroit to Midland to Zeeland were exploring ways to overhaul traditional approaches to summer school.

There were early concerns about whether schools would have the money to expand summer learning offerings, in part because the state had delayed distributing a large amount of the federal stimulus money to schools. But the K-12 school aid budget Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Wednesday morning means schools will now receive that money. There is also money within the state budget for summer programs.

There also were concerns about staffing and whether teachers, already feeling burned out from pandemic stress, would sign up to teach.

Experts recommended that school districts partner with community and after-school programs, many of which already work with students during the summer and know what children need now and in the future.

“With the additional federal funding, school districts have the opportunity to partner with community-based after-school/summer learning programs to help the districts reach their goals,” said Erin Skene-Pratt, interim network lead for the Michigan Afterschool Partnership, a Lansing-based organization that provides statewide leadership to build and sustain high-quality after-school programs.

“Community-based after-school/summer learning programs can help schools reach more students and provide the necessary staff, academic, and social emotional support, and connect with students and families that might be disengaged from school. There’s no need to recreate the wheel. These programs have demonstrated impact and are critical to the recovery of Michigan’s students,” Skene-Pratt said.

The Detroit district is heavily relying on community partners to help with tutoring and enrichment programs, Vitti said.

Many district officials said they feel they must reconfigure summer educational lineups to adapt to a coronavirus-dominated environment. That means extra time in committees, redrafting materials, and communicating programs to parents. Most importantly, they must find incentives that not only get families to sign up, but keep students coming back week after week, something especially challenging for districts that already have difficulty with enrollment, attendance and engagement.

At Detroit Merit, Martin-Terry was planning incentives such as t-shirts, ice-cream parties, and weekly raffles for prizes for students who have near-perfect attendance and show great effort, she said. “We only have 18 slots per grade so we need people to commit to be there,” she added, noting that students who need more help are invited to participate in the program before it opens to others.

If there ever was a time to have big-picture dreams about what summer learning could be, this is it, said Aaron Philip Dworkin, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association, a national nonprofit focused on closing the achievement gap by increasing access to high-quality summer-learning opportunities.

“Kids are so Zoomed out,” Dworkin said. Some have questioned whether students need more social-emotional help or academic help. But Dworkin said it’s a “false discussion.”

“The answer is: Yes. We need both. We need connection before content. We need to make sure kids feel heard, seen, loved and welcomed. Once they feel that, then they’ll be open to talking about reading and math. But it doesn’t work the opposite way.”

Parent Alison Hobson agrees. The Grosse Pointe Park mother of three is looking at a summer program called the Grosse Pointe Institute for Learning, for a second year for her 9-year-old son and pre-K daughter.

The learning institute was created by teacher Tricia Hexter in 2020 for parents looking for a way to close the learning gap they felt was created when schools, including Grosse Pointe Public Schools, switched to online education in March 2020.

With summer school, Hobson said she wanted a program that not only gives her children face-to-face instruction but an outlet for making friends and having meaningful experiences.

“We know as parents our kids don’t listen to us as much as they listen to other people,” Hobson said. “We also needed to get them out of the house. If you’re in the Louvre (the Paris museum) surrounded by art, you learn about art. If you’re in a zoo, you learn about animals. Being there, in person, is crucial to learning.”

Ultimately, experts like Dworkin said that is what summer learning is all about — giving every student a chance to learn and experience new opportunities.

“Necessity is the mother of invention. Now, we have no choice,” Dworkin said. “We need everybody to get together (because) summer learning is a platform for promoting equity and opportunity in education.”

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