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Engaging Students in Meaningful Summer School

The summer months now upon us feature a crucial project for schools: addressing the learning and socialization gaps children have experienced due to the pandemic. A recent article in Vox about the importance of fun in summer school highlighted a core component of many experts’ advice about summer school this year: engaging students, and attending to their social-emotional needs, is more important than ever—and as crucial as working on the math and reading they may have missed, particularly for those out of school now for almost a year and a half.

“We’ve got to get the light back on in these kids’ eyes,” Dr. Denise Pope from Stanford explained to Vox. At Partnership Schools, we agree that inspiring curiosity among students who have lost it or sustaining it among those who have remained engaged this year is crucial. As we put finishing touches on our plans for an unprecedented expansion of our summer programming, we are following much of the same generally accepted wisdom cited in articles like the one in Vox, about the importance of play and engagement this summer. But at the Partnership, it’s also essential that we infuse our summer school plan with two key principles we hold dear.

More Partnership students than ever before will participate in summer school this year—over twice as many than in pre-COVID years. Historically, students from all seven of our New York schools have an opportunity to attend summer school at St. Athanasius in the Bronx, which has both a long history of doing this well and, frankly, the air conditioning for it. This year, we’ll have two sites—one in Harlem and the other in the Bronx. The in-person, four-week program will run all day for five days, rather than half a day for four, as has been past practice; we know students can benefit now more than ever from a full day of learning and socializing in person, and finding half a day of childcare can be both hard and expensive. The program will be staffed entirely by teachers from our own schools, who will provide half-days of instruction, and by teaching assistants, who will support students all day, including during afternoon enrichment.

Our aim is to provide enjoyable, engaging, rich learning all day. And this is where our principles come into play. First, when we look at how to engage children in school and in learning, we zealously guard one belief: engagement strategies do not operate independent of content. To assume that engagement is a precondition to learning content, or additive in some way, is to risk underestimating kids. As many teachers can attest, few moves are as likely to merit this reaction…

…as content that is simplistic or too basic, even for students who have learning gaps. So just as during the school year, our summer school program’s impact depends on rich content. And for us, rich is never code for “boring.” For example, we’ve made the choice to focus on novels for ELA work with students rising into third grade next year and above, based on our experience that compelling narrative arcs sustain interest in a way that worksheet-length texts do not. So our students will be diving into works like Flora and Ulysses, The Season of Styx Malone, Hello, Universe and—for middle schoolers—Heroes, Gods, and Monsters. While teachers will focus on comprehension and text-dependent questions, just as they do during the school year, we know students will benefit as much from 60 minutes of sustained shared reading time, bringing the text to life by reading aloud with their classmates and teachers—and getting lost in the story.

Even for our youngest learners, who will be focusing on phonics this summer, we’ve deliberately chosen materials that embed rich content in skill development. The decodable readers in Jill Lauren’s Whole Phonics program have real stories that kids follow from page to page and book to book, rather than canned short sentences with little substantive meaning.

In math, students will be using the same Eureka and Saxon materials we use during the school year. We’re curating lessons that represent major work of the grade band, to help students build automaticity with the most important math knowledge and computations for the year that lies ahead of them. Teachers’ adeptness with our shared core curricula gives us confidence that they can keep students in the zone between frustration and boredom in summer school math.

Engagement doesn’t come at the expense of content; it comes through it.


So we know that engagement doesn’t come at the expense of content; it comes through it. And just as we have every intention of each morning’s lessons being both interesting and instructive, we believe that afternoons full of play can sustain dimensions of learning that are vital to us as Catholic schools, committed to nurturing the whole person. But—as some of our schools’ root beliefs assert—excellence comes from effort, not by accident—even on the playground.

MCHR middle schoolers enjoy time with friends this spring.

That’s why we’re excited that nonprofit Playworks is helping to shape our kids’ time on the playground this summer. Playworks is partnering with our staff not just to let students loose to play, but to ensure that in their play students keep cultivating the cooperation and other positive social skills they need for all hours of the school day to feel more welcoming and energizing than enervating. Students’ afternoons will also feature lots of fun Science Explorers experiments as well. As kids build catapults and circuits, they will work together in ways that simultaneously merge fun, knowledge-building, and social skills.

All of this comes at a cost, and CARES act funding is crucial for making it happen. Regulatory structures in New York mean that we must work through vendors, rather than providing services directly. That means over twenty percent of our stimulus funding for students goes to administrative overhead that we wouldn’t have had if allowed to provide these services directly. As lean Catholic institutions committed to doing more with less, it pains us to consider what more we could be doing for students this summer with a different regulatory structure. A significant part of our effort this spring has gone into finding vendors and agents committed to transparency with us, to ensure that our students are benefiting as much as possible from the taxpayer dollars being spent on their summer learning.

The stakes are high for this summer. Particularly for students from under-served communities, ensuring that academic and social deficits from the pandemic don’t become a burden students carry for years isn’t just a pedagogical challenge; it is an urgent social justice issue. Just because it’s urgent doesn’t mean it can’t be fun—particularly if we engage students with full respect for their innate attraction to learning and their capacity for it.

Maggie Johnson is Vice President of Academics for Partnership Schools, and Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives.