By ERIN GOLDEN firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s midway through a recent morning for summer school students at Lakeville’s Oak Hills Elementary, and the class has plenty of questions.
Is that a balloon, trapped high in that branch? Why do those balls of fluff fall from cottonwood trees? Could there be catfish in the lake?
“I saw a fish!” a boy shouts.
Clipboards in hand and binoculars dangling around their necks, the first-, second- and third-graders are on a nature scavenger hunt at Casperson Park, learning about the plants and animals that live in and around Lake Marion. As they continue their search along the shore, two wooden canoes glide by, each packed with older students singing and strategizing about how best to turn their boats.
It doesn’t look or feel like a typical school day — and that’s the point.
Gone are the days when summer school was entirely about sitting in a classroom, making up credits or getting additional lessons in reading and math. While there’s still plenty of emphasis on the basics of academics, more school districts are taking a much broader approach to summer learning.
Targeted programs for kids who need extra help — like the one in Lakeville — now include field trips, hands-on projects and lessons that are as much about communication skills and team building as they are about core school subjects. Many districts offer vast catalogs of enrichment programs and camps in everything from drama to robotics, and encourage students as young as elementary age to explore career possibilities.
Deirdra Yarbro , learning supports manager for Bloomington Public Schools, said her district, like Lakeville and many others, has concluded that the old model of summer school that looked a lot like the rest of the academic year wasn’t making much of a difference in students’ lives or school performance.
“For a lot of kids, it felt like more of the same,” she said. “And we realize — as schools all over the country have — that more of the same is not helping to increase student or academic engagement.”
In many districts, the renewed focus on summer learning is part of a broader strategy to shrink Minnesota’s persistent racial and economic achievement gaps — but also to narrow what school leaders refer to as “opportunity gaps.” For students who lag behind their peers in academics, summer can be a time to try to catch up, or at least avoid falling further back. But it’s also a chance for new opportunities and challenges , such as canoeing on a lake, visiting a theater or taking swimming lessons.
In Bloomington, each week of summer school has a different theme, designed specifically with kids’ interests in mind.
One week of lessons and projects this summer was all about science in the kitchen. Another was based around the popular trend of “escape rooms,” allowing students to use creative problem-solving to find their way through each lesson.
Minneapolis Public Schools students who participate in the science and technology focused program GEMS/GISE (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science, and Guys in Science and Engineering) get visits from people who work in and study those fields, and go on trips to local college campuses, including the University of Minnesota and Dunwoody College of Technology. New and revamped class offerings this summer include “skateboard science,” in which students learn about the physics behind skateboards and build and design their own board, and a music coding class, where students explore how sounds are created with electricity.
High school students in the district’s “Court Camp” program spend a week at the federal court building in downtown Minneapolis, shadowing attorneys, judges and court reporters, watching courtroom proceedings and participating in their own mock-trial events.
Minneapolis district program facilitator Aaron Gerhardt , who oversees the court camp and other summer programs, said he’s seen the hands-on approach to summer school light students’ interest in both future careers and the classroom work they’ll need to complete in the meantime.
“So often we get asked that question as teachers: ‘When am I ever going to use this in life?’ he said. “Being able to provide that real context in learning sometimes is that spark that kids need to engage in academics again.”
Summer programs are targeted at students who aren’t meeting academic benchmarks, or who meet other criteria ( such as being homeless, or missing a significant amount of school because of an illness ) . Qualifying students attend the summer programs for free, and districts often provide transportation . Those programs must be led by licensed teachers.
Enrichment programs and offerings focused on child care , on the other hand, typically come with fees and don’t include busing.
Because some programs run for a shorter day than during the regular school year, districts have linked them with school-run child care and camps to ensure the schedule is feasible for working parents.
In the Osseo school district, for example, students who attend the targeted academic summer program, Camp ROCKS , might spend most of their day in that program but also attend a child-care program. So might students who participate in Freedom Schools, a separate program aimed at narrowing the achievement gap for students of color, or students participating in one of the district’s fee-based summer camps.
“We want to give families that flexibility,” said Carrie Cabe , the district’s assistant director of community engagement.
Because school districts can’t require students to attend summer school, keeping the programs interesting is also a way to entice more students to show up.
In Lakeville, the students spending the morning at the lake said adventures in the outdoors were exactly the kind of thing that made them excited to spend a summer day with their teachers.
They eagerly listened as instructors from Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis-based outdoor education and travel organization, taught the basics of canoeing, guided them through setting up a tent and pointed out the differences in the footprints of an otter and a bobcat. They figured out what helps to get everyone in the canoe to paddle the same way (singing and shouting encouragement) and got over their nerves about trying something new.
Leo Fallgatter, 10, said he could see clear differences between his summer school adventures and the usual school day.
“At school, when we get to go outside, we would just go out and play,” he said.
Here at the park, he figured, they were doing more learning.