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Focus, Excellence and Support in the Summer

Every fall, students across the country return to school with learning “gaps,” whether predictable lapses in memory or skills deficits amplified by months without classroom instruction. In “normal” years, students from all of our New York schools have an opportunity to attend an in-person summer school in one location to combat the “summer slide” and prepare them richly for the academic year ahead.

This year, though, after months of remote learning, more families than ever looked to us for support in keeping their students academically engaged and growing during the summer. And even as our teachers stepped forward to meet this need, we knew that our approach need to be manageable–for principals and deans, busy gearing up for the complicated start of this next school year; for parents, who are still wrestling with the challenge of coronavirus limitations; for teachers, who have earned a well-deserved break; and for students, who we knew would need to be learning remotely.

Pulling off a manageable and maximally impactful summer program in this context is giving us a chance to test the model of school management that has long guided our network and to refine the principles of remote learning we established for ourselves this spring.

Our Model

From its inception, Partnership Schools’ network has sought a new way of running traditional Catholic schools–one that preserves the autonomy crucial for Catholic schools’ long impact on the communities they nimbly serve, while also providing more support than parish-based schools have typically received. We also know that Catholic schools–always run on a shoe-string–must focus in order to achieve outstanding results. For seven years, then, we have framed our work around these guideposts of focus, excellence and support–and summer learning during a pandemic is no exception.

Our network academic team quickly identified a set of discipline-specific focal points for our summer learning. In ELA, goals were anchored in a belief that supporting students in joyfully accumulating reading “road miles,” while habituating expressive and “close” reading, would pay dividends for years to come. In lower elementary grades, they opted to emphasize mastery of phonics and students’ time spent reading aloud from decodable texts. In math, they distilled topics for each grade level’s summer math work and teed up lesson formats that would help students progress toward fluency. That same network team provided professional development for teachers in all these areas and guidance on how to leverage the high-quality curricula we use during the school year.

Thus the network provided the focus and support; freed of needing to determine what to teach, teachers could then concentrate on using their knowledge of individual students’ needs to figure out how best to help them. As St. Charles Borromeo principal Natalia Rodrigo puts it, the network’s approach has been “This is your guide–but make it your own.”

Within this guidance, schools were free to design a summer learning schedule that felt right for each community. And the shared curriculum resources, along with network-wide principles for remote learning we identified back in the spring, provided a common vision around which principals and deans could adapt and innovate to meet their communities’ needs.

Our Principles for Remote Learning

The principals for remote learning we named to guide our work in the spring included

  • maintaining routines,
  • supporting meaningful learning,
  • and ensuring manageability.

And we sought to remain true to those principles in summer learning. So, for example, Immaculate Conception School in the Bronx organized a schedule that reserves the last half hour of each summer learning half-day to focus on small group and individualized instruction, so that students get additional practice or teacher attention in order to achieve the goal of meaningful learning each day. Nearby, St. Athanasius chose to divide the summer into two phases, serving all early elementary students in the first phase and grades three through eight in the second.

On the other hand, St. Charles Borromeo chose to emphasize the kinds of routines that would intentionally remind students of in-person schooling. So all participating students log on for morning meeting at the start of the day, and they even have recess. Principal Natalia Rodrigo notes with pride that whether students have darted outside or hopped on a video game, they are all returning to their Zooms after recess on time.

All schools are finding that meaningful learning at a distance requires a mix of old and new routines. Immaculate Conception Dean Trista Rivera has noted teachers’ increased use of small groups and partners online and has been impressed that middle school students who might not have spoken up in an in-person class are actively collaborating with peers in break-out rooms to solve seventh grade math problems–even when their teacher, Berina Pobric, is in the other “room.” At St. Charles, the in-person style schedule described above reigns four days of the week–and then Fridays include a more significant dose of both individualized projects meant to consolidate learning and time for teachers to deliver detailed, individualized “glows and grows” to students and parents.

Are these approaches working? We will know more this fall about the extent to which this summer’s efforts produce long-term impacts. So far, teachers are pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement–St. Athanasius first grade teacher Jenny Marchesani notes “Almost all of the students are 100% engaged and ready for each lesson I throw at them! They are also so quick to answer questions, which I love.”  And while ICS dean Trista Rivera admits there were a few older students that had to be nudged a little to log on on time during the first week, “parents are really helping” and are committed to students’ taking full advantage of the opportunity to keep learning over the summer.

Importantly, the program also has benefits beyond academics. “Kids light up because they are together,” St. Athanasius principal Jess Aybar notes.

Perhaps one of the most important reviews so far comes from a student himself. Rising ICS eighth grader Johan admits that he was struggling in seventh grade, “so I decided to do the summer program because I needed some help.” The interactive approach his teachers are taking has validated for him the decision to put down his video game controller and work on math. “When you don’t understand something, you work with your partner to figure it out.” He knows that being well-prepared for eighth grade is crucial for his ambitions for high school admissions, and he recommends the summer classes he is taking in both math and ELA. While it might be more fun to be reading the comic books he likes, “It’s good to be in the classes,” he says. “You’re going to get more help.”