Philly district offers universal summer school to fight academic ‘regression’

Tara Matise teaches her prekindergarten students virtually in her classroom

Tara Matise teaches her prekindergarten students virtually in her classroom prepared ahead of planned in-person learning at Nebinger Elementary School in Philadelphia, Friday, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The School District of Philadelphia plans to offer universal summer school for all public school students in grades K-12 this year.

The district expects at least 14,000 students to enroll, based on internal data about student academic needs. Registration for the summer programs opened Thursday morning. Full-day classes will start on June 28 and run through mid-August, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Superintendent William Hite says it’s the most robust summer program offered by the district in recent memory.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve never had the opportunity to offer as many families who want their children in summer [school], a program option,” said Hite.

In previous summers, the district has provided classes for an average of 2,000 to 3,000 students.

For five to six weeks, the programs will offer standard academic courses, as well as extracurriculars like music, art, engineering, and physical education.

District officials say the summer classes will help students “narrow achievement gaps” after almost 15 months of virtual learning. The programs are also meant to support students in preparation for the fall.

This is about “helping students reach and maintain grade-level performance in reading and in math,” said Hite.

Hite acknowledged the program is only a fraction of what’s needed.

“You don’t make up that time in five or six weeks,” said Hite. “We understand that. We are trying to reduce regression.”

The initiative will be funded through the recent federal stimulus plan pushed by President Joe Biden’s administration. The district anticipates about $1 billion in funds to be used over the next few years, of which 20% has to go toward addressing “interrupted learning,” about $240 million.

District officials declined to put a price tag on the expanded summer program.

The district plans to open 24 school buildings for the summer classes, dispersed across Philadelphia neighborhoods. The district said it may open up to 39 or more depending on demand. All of the classes will be fully in person, excluding virtual programs for pre-K and kindergarten students and students with complex needs.

Current teachers and staff will be offered employment over the summer. If the district doesn’t end up having enough staff, it will consider “emergency operations,” according to Malika Savoy Brooks, chief of academic support.

Hite said some educators may want to take a break this summer. If so, the district may hire staff from outside agencies.

“We are not going to stop the program if we don’t have enough staff,” said Brooks.

As of this past Saturday, 11,000 school district employees received their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The district is encouraging students who have either failed a course or were at risk of failing a course to attend these programs.

District officials advised parents to “talk to your teacher” to find out if children need extra help this summer.

Hite suggested asking teachers a few questions, like, “Is my child reading and writing at grade levels … is my child thinking critically?” And also, “Is my child tired of being isolated?”

Hite stressed this program is open to everyone and anyone. “The goal here is to get as many young people engaged as possible,” he said.

In coordination with the district, the city also plans to add more support to its pre-existing summer recreation center programs for first- through eighth-graders. Deputy Mayor Cynthia Figueroa said this is a natural progression from the “access centers” the city created for students of low-income working parents during virtual school.

Seventy-seven of these centers opened over this past school year. About 30% of the centers closed temporarily due to COVID-19 infections.

Figueroa said she’s excited that there are now more in-person opportunities for kids.

“This is a unique year,” said Figueroa. “We get to take those resources, those opportunities, and those supports, and partner directly with the district so we can have the academic learning while our out-of-school providers can then provide the extracurricular.”

“We want [students] to have fun,” said Figueroa.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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