The end of summer always evokes a bittersweet feeling that harkens back to childhood. As a kid, I would anticipate the impending school year with a mixture of excitement and dread, and look back on the fleeting days of summer vacation with a wistfulness bordering on nostalgia.
Like most things, summer is different these days, at least for some Idaho kids. Many school districts offer summer school, at least for a few weeks, which adds structure and, one hopes, some enhanced learning for students that need it most.
As the executive director of Teach for America Idaho (TFA Idaho), I have spent significant time with my team imagining how the ideal summer learning experience might look. Our strong belief is that the opportunity is ripe to build upon what already exists in so many places to create great and enjoyable learning opportunities that benefit students, yes, but novice and veteran educators as well.
We are already seeing some strong examples in our state of summer school reimagined. For the second summer in a row, TFA Idaho was fortunate to partner with and have two of our teachers work as part of the Wood River YMCA SummerBridge Education Camp. This cooperative effort brought together the YMCA, College of Idaho, and Blaine County School District to provide a free, full-day educational and recreational experience for 300 students.
What I learned during a visit to the camp is that summer school can be an opportunity for students and teachers to learn in new and different ways. It can also be an effective tool to accelerate learning and opportunities for students who might have fallen behind during the Covid-19 learning disruption. If summer school looks like an extension of the school year, motivating students to attend can be a challenge. But when you mix in support from community organizations, outdoor recreation, and weekly field trips, it feels as much like summer camp as summer school.
TFA Idaho also launched a new summer program this summer in the Payette School District that taught us and Payette educators some important lessons about the multiple benefits of summer learning. It also provided 120 Payette middle and high school students with extra learning time they needed to make up some of the learning lost during the pandemic and consider what possibilities they want to explore after high school.
What made the Payette program so special is that it served three distinct purposes. The most important was ensuring each student had the opportunity to grow and achieve the goals that they set for themselves. This went beyond time in the classroom.
At the end of the program, we took the students on a daylong visit to Boise State University. Many of them had never set foot on a college campus. Our hope was that the simple act of visiting a college could help spark students’ imagination and empower them to create the future they want for themselves.
The summer program also provided some veteran Payette teachers with an opportunity they had never enjoyed: Mentoring young teachers.
Marci Holcomb, Payette High School’s assistant principal, was the school district’s point person for the summer program. Marci told us the mentoring opportunity was a huge gift to the district and to the mentor teachers.
Small rural districts like Payette rarely get student teachers assigned there by colleges of education, Marci said. So the opportunity for veterans to mentor fledgling teachers for the first time has been exhilarating. “I’ve seen my mentor teachers really blossom and grow into the role,” she said.
Payette’s mentor teachers told us that they found the experience rejuvenating and confidence-building, and would have a positive impact on their teaching when the new year begins.
Jarred Frye, an English teacher at Payette High School, said that having come to teaching through a non-traditional route, he always felt a bit of “impostor syndrome.” But mentoring, he said, has shown him that “it turns out I know a heck of a lot more than I ever gave myself credit for knowing.”
The third purpose served by Payette’s summer program was providing our new teachers with their first hands-on teaching experience. Guided by the mentors, they have worked with small groups of students, helping them bolster their math and literacy skills.
Students told Marci and other Payette teachers that they felt they could relate strongly to the student teachers, because they were young and empathetic and wore their hearts on their sleeves.
Six new and returning TFA Idaho teachers will be teaching at Payette High School this year, and their summer experience will give them an invaluable boost in confidence and readiness.
What I’ve learned this year is that summer learning does not need to be reinvented from the ground up. It would benefit, however, from a reimagining. Many summer school programs, for example, operate without a curriculum. But such curricula exist, and we put one to use in Payette. Bringing in a special curriculum specifically targeted to summer learning helps students and teachers alike.
How will we know whether a reimagined summer school is successful? One key indicator, of course, will be measurable learning gains for students. But an equally important measure is whether some of these students, who have struggled during the regular school year, can now envision school and learning as something that can accelerate their possibilities.
My vision is that in the minds of students, summer school is no longer seen as remedial drudgery forced upon them, depriving them of the opportunity to sleep in and hang out with friends during the long hot days of June, July, and August. Instead, they wake up excited to spend the days with peers and teachers, who are just as excited as they are to be there bright and early every weekday morning.