I have had the opportunity, for a day or two now, to contemplate summer school. Mind you, I’ve always said that it will be a cold day in hell (or a hot one, if you subscribe to Dante) before I teach summer school. Personally, I’ve never needed the money so badly to make it more valuable than recharging, working on personal projects, taking classes, and traveling. But until now, we weren’t talking about summer school at my school, and I wasn’t trying to save for a place of my own someday, so let’s just say the demons have started shivering and digging out their sweaters. Then again, there are a lot of other, unbloggable considerations but I can’t go into those. Leave it at: stranger things have happened.
So suddenly, I find myself faced with the question: what kind of summer school would I be willing to take a lead role in? And it’s kind of an exciting question, because it presents a chance to break the mold a bit and do something to really help some kids.
To be fair, I have only the sketchiest knowledge of summer school as it is currently implemented in NYC, but it seems to be mostly about attendance… the vast majority of kids who show up every day get promoted. We’ve been a little hesitant to send kids to the neighborhood summer school because we worry that our failing kids might still be far enough ahead of other schools’ failing kids that they would do little but pick up bad habits from their new classmates… but that could be unfair. Still, it gives one pause and has resulted in virtually all of our failures being promoted because we weren’t convinced that summer school would help them all that much.
What comes to mind is that our kids fail for two reasons:
(1) they have what it takes to pass classes and tests, but they don’t do their work and end up failing multiple subjects
(2) they do most of what they should but fail the tests and/or classes anyway, reflecting a real deficit in skills.
Should these two groups of kids have the same summer school experience? To me, the answer is a definite NO.
What do I want for/from the first group? I want them to make up major projects that they did not hand in. I want close attention paid to work habits, motivation, and the like. I want them to go back to topics they failed and spend more time on them, with an emphasis on completing the assignments that allowed others to succeed. And I want this for them in all subjects, not just math and reading. For these kids, summer school is about fulfilling obligations unmet during the school year (which in and of itself should serve as motivation to meet those obligations the first time around so as to avoid spending one’s summer in class), and developing the habits to prepare them to meet their obligations in the future. For some kids, this might include time management skills; for others, it might mean close teacher supervision of things like lab reports, allowing them to experience success on what might be overwhelming or unfamiliar projects, paving the way for future success on similar projects. Beyond helping the student, this sort of summer school communicates to other students that expectations are real: not meeting them has consequences.
The second type of student needs something slightly different. These kids need their academic weaknesses closely analyzed and an individualized plan developed to help close gaps in fundamentals that are holding the kids back. The focus should be mostly on math and reading, but with some science and social studies integrated into the day to keep things interesting for the kids and because middle school is the transition to high school, when all subjects “count.” We need to begin holding the kids accountable – and holding ourselves, as teachers, accountable for supporting them – for the content and skills taught in social studies and science.
So what does this all look like in practice? I think that a truly transformational summer school program would require a sort of short-term IEP for every student: a plan based on the student’s weaknesses and skill gaps, the patterns of behavior and work habits which contributed to academic failure, and the standards which are most crucial to provide a foundation for the following year’s curriculum. Both types of students could benefit from such a plan.
Students who chose not to do the required work should have a packet of assignments across subject areas which they must complete in order to make up missed assignments from the school year. To make teaching demands realistic, this might not be exactly the same as “making up” missed work, but it might be a series of projects designed by subject area teachers to review content and skills and provide opportunities for students to demonstrate competency they did not demonstrate earlier. Students who did most of the required work but still failed should have classes targeting specific content and skill deficits. I envision a menu of interventions: TAI math, GreatLeaps phonics, mini-units on specific standards in all subject areas, project workshops, one-on-one tutoring, small group classes, and so on, with each child flexibly grouped and with a schedule tailored as much as possible to his or her needs. I also envision a clear set of promotional standards for each student based on this schedule, signed by student, parent, and teachers at the start of summer school. It should indicate minimum attendance requirements, along with other benchmarks which must be met for promotion to occur. Every week, each student should receive a progress report indicating where they stand in relation to their promotional standards.
Is this a lot of work for teachers and administrators? Tons. But I think it’s the only way to make summer school a tool for transforming the educational experiences of failing students. It would require lots of resources of all kinds, and plenty of time spent planning. Scheduling it could be a nightmare. Then again, I don’t see this as a program for hundreds of kids; keeping numbers low and focusing on the highest-needs population would be the goal. Kids who are failing won’t benefit much from the same-old, same-old anyway: they’ve already spent plenty of hours in large classes with a mainstream curriculum, and many have spent additional time in smaller groups with remedial curriculum. Now it’s time for even smaller – tiny – groups, individual tutoring, and other special programs selected just for this student.
What do you think?