DECATUR — Teachers missed their students during COVID-19 shutdowns and remote learning. In Decatur, students were only in-person during the last quarter, and then only for two days a week.
But then came summer school.
The program in Decatur Public Schools this year is four days a week and instead of the “camp” model of past years, is more like regular school, with 10 of the district buildings acting as hosts and students assigned to each from the others. The program was developed and implemented by Judith Campbell, the district's prek-12 director of teaching and learning.
It is a stark contrast to the months of schools being shuttered and classes held over the internet.
Now with vaccines in place and restrictions eased, summer school is a chance to regain what was lost in an incredibly challenging 15 months.
“With this crazy COVID year, there were many gaps that needed filled due to students not logging on or attending school in person," said Cassandra Mann, who teaches at Dennis School. "One amazing side effect of COVID protocols is that my class size has been cut in half."
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During the last quarter, COVID restrictions required the students to be divided into two groups, with one group attending Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group on Thursdays and Fridays. This summer, she said, class sizes are still small enough to allow her to give every student individual attention, and they're attending four days a week.
June has been dubbed “Restoration,” with an emphasis on language arts and math skills. Students attend five hours per day from preschool through high school. High school students focus on credit recovery, while younger students focus on skill-building and gaps resulting from remote learning.
July's program is “Acceleration,” and the focus that month will be on science, technology, arts, engineering and math. Language arts can be incorporated into lesson plans at teachers' discretion. More than 1,000 preschool through eighth grade students signed up for summer school this year, and 450 high school students.
"Some kids did not attend one day of virtual learning, while others attended every single lesson," Mann said. "The divide is huge and more drastic than it has ever been. Thankfully a few of the kids who had poor participation during the school year are taking advantage of our more normal schedule and are going to get intensive teaching this summer. In order to manage the different levels of ability in the classroom we do a lot of small group or pull-over type of work."
She has already seen tremendous growth, she said, and one big advantage with summer school is that she has a full-time assistant, so kids can meet one-on-one with an adult to address their needs.
"Kids who didn’t know their letters in April are starting to read," she said. "They are eager to learn and love being back in a school building daily."
Students were assessed the first week, which was the week of June 1, said Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Jeff Dase, and will be assessed again at the end of the month to gauge how much they progressed.
The response has been positive, Dase said, but the hope was that more students would attend.
“To be perfectly honest, we want more of our students to take advantage of our summer school offerings,” he said. “There is the misconception that summer school is for struggling students, only which is not the case. Our summer school offerings can benefit students of all levels. Students that have signed up need to attend every day and students that have not signed up, we still have room to enroll more students.”
Summer school is not “one size fits all,” said Sara Nave, who teaches middle school students at Dennis. Teachers can target kids' needs and interests and work together to meet students where they are and help them acquire the skills and knowledge they'll need to do well in the fall.
Plans are for the July session to be more like past years' summer camp, with field trips and activities that will get students out in the community more. In the meantime, even the students who might have been registered for summer school reluctantly due to parents' insistence are having fun.
“We're really trying to target their learning but we're doing it in a fun way,” Nave said. “They don't just come in and sit down and work for four and a half hours out of a book. We're watching 'In the Heights,' which just came out, because our class is working on journeys and kind of being able to see how the hardships and downfalls can still lift you up and propel you further with what you want to do when you get older.”
And summer school isn't just for kids who have fallen behind, she said. While there are some students who need the boost, others missed the daily interaction with their teachers and friends during remote learning and are getting a head start on next year.
“We have students that on paper would never have been asked to do summer school, but it's opened to everybody to provide them with the opportunity to really make sure they're as prepared as possible for next year,” she said. “Maybe in other districts you walk into summer school and imagine they all failed when in reality for this year, these are kids who are seizing an opportunity, and I love that so many students and parents have stepped up to give them this opportunity to make them more successful and for us to keep growing alongside our students.”
The goals of summer school are the same goals as during the regular school year, Dase said: Student achievement growth and to ensure students are prepared to socialize productively, which has been a concern coming back from a pandemic school year.
“With more students back in-person, students will be better prepared to engage in full in-person instruction and school as we return this fall,” he said.
Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter