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Five Summer School Best Practices: Focusing on Enrichment

Thursday, April 23, 2015 -- Sarah Cornelius

Say the words “summer school,” and most people will cringe a little. The traditional view of summer school is one of punishment as much as anything else. Unhappy students who did poorly in one class or another during the school year or who need additional credits to graduate trudge indoors for monotonous catch-up lessons when they could be outdoors with friends, enjoying the warm weather and sunshine. It’s not a motivating picture, and motivation is such an integral component of student success. So let’s try a different take on summer school, where the focus is on enrichment instead of remediation—for all students, whether advanced, struggling, or anywhere in between.

Numerous studies have shown how real the issue of summer learning loss is. A study by the RAND Corporation found that, on average, by the end of the summer, students are academically one month behind where they were in the spring. These learning losses affect low-income students to a much greater extent than their affluent counterparts. And these losses accumulate over time, so with each year, low-income students tend to get further and further behind, contributing substantially to the achievement gap.

The good news? These same studies have consistently found that high-quality, engaging summer school programs can go a long way in preventing learning loss and can even accelerate student learning and performance. What’s the trick to developing such a program? Read on for several research-based best practices.

1.       One size does not fit all 

Differentiated instruction is becoming more of a priority in all classrooms, but it is even more important in summer school settings. In programs focused on remediation especially, enrolled students likely struggled with traditional classroom models, which are usually centered on group instruction. Make sure that students are assessed at the beginning of the program to determine exactly where their skills are, and then provide targeted instruction and materials.

2.       Small classes = big gains 

Hand-in-hand with the need to differentiate instruction is the need to keep summer school class sizes small. Large class sizes are one of the most common barriers to effective personalized instruction; after all, instructors simply don’t have the time or ability to be everywhere at once in their classrooms. Capping your summer school classes at a small size makes significant one-on-one time between instructors and their students feasible. Instructors get to know their students, understand their knowledge gaps and learning styles, and build relationships that motivate learning.

3.       Think about extracurriculars 

Yes, the goal of summer school has traditionally been to simply improve academic skills. But, it also offers the opportunity for such a broader and richer spectrum of activities that can motivate and engage students, all while improving academic and personal skills. Offer enrichment courses in topics like art, technology, and leadership. Provide opportunities for community service, or for older students, bring in community members to discuss college and career paths. Plan off-site lessons at local museums or parks. Incorporate physical activity to teach students healthy habits. Just because students are in summer school does not mean they need to be confined to a classroom.

4.       Find a partner 

Never underestimate the power of involving the greater community. More and more community partners—outreach groups, businesses, athletic organizations, and others—are seeing the value in engaging with students during the summer. Teaming up with organizations such as these provides more opportunities for students, and the real-world element can help engage learners who may struggle with the classroom environment. Community partnerships also offer a great way for districts to stretch tight budgets.

5.       Try something new 

Summer is a great time to test out things that you having been wanting to try—new technology, new scheduling, new curriculum, etc. Whatever you may try, summer school programs are a great opportunity for educators to get creative and flesh out innovative new practices. After all, summer is the time for having fun, right?

Looking for more resources on effective summer school programming? The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) is an outstanding source for information, research-based strategies, and examples of successful programs that are already up and running. Be sure to look at the NSLA’s report on A New Vision for Summer School. The California School Boards Association has also released a very informative report, What constitutes an effective summer school program?

Want to learn about how Edmentum can be a part of your school’s or district’s engaging summer programming? Find out more here