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Administrators Turn To Summer School To Address Pandemic Gaps

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Because of the pandemic, there's been a fear that students lost serious learning time this year. So many districts are turning to that old-fashioned fix - summer school. And they're adding some new twists. One such school is in Texas, the Grand Prairie Independent School District. As part of our series Learning Curve, where we have heard from educators, parents and students during this pandemic, NPR's Rosemary Misdary brings us this final report for our series.

ROSEMARY MISDARY, BYLINE: April Wyatt is an elementary school principal in Grand Prairie, a city between Dallas and Fort Worth. She says after roughly a year of remote learning, many of her students just aren't where she'd like them to be.

APRIL WYATT: It is no secret that the pandemic caused so many academic gaps.

MISDARY: Especially in math, Wyatt says. Grand Prairie teacher Taylor Denny (ph) says kids also need help with their social and emotional skills.

TAYLOR DENNY: How they need to communicate, how they need to - instead of just taking a marker, can I ask for that marker? Because when you're virtual, you don't have to worry about sharing and doing all of those things.

MISDARY: But their district's approach to summer school might surprise you because it feels a lot like that other seasonal mainstay - summer camp. For example, lunch sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WYATT: All right. All right. All right. Well, let's get this party started.

MISDARY: When principal Wyatt wasn't cheerleading, gym teacher Jonathan Casper (ph) was pumping the music.

JONATAHAN CASPER: We got jams blasting off the wazoo. Everybody's dancing, flying. Like, it's not your normal lunch.

MISDARY: The point, Casper says, is summer school's got to be fun for kids to want to be there. The rule holds in the classroom, too.

PATRICIA LEWIS: They will be creating their personal superhero.

MISDARY: Patricia Lewis is Grand Prairie's associate superintendent.

LEWIS: Each week they will be adding to that theme. They will name their superhero. They may build a model of the superhero. They may create a song about their superhero.

MISDARY: Lewis says her district talked up their approach with parents and students. They sent special invitations for an open house with a video of what the program would look like. They made phone calls to reach the district's most vulnerable students. And then there's the swag bag kids get for registering.

LEWIS: In your swag bag, you got My Camp T-shirts, you got My Camp water bottles, all types of little goodies.

MISDARY: Principal Wyatt says even math will be more fun this summer because it's in person.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: What does it look like in standard form? It's one hundred and..

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Six.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Six. Look at our hands. We should have...

WYATT: I actually went into a classroom yesterday.

MISDARY: A math class, Wyatt says, where she saw the kids engaged, in part because they all had green and orange blocks in their hands to help them count by tens and hundreds.

WYATT: I saw kids manipulating these same things on their desk and moving them around. And the teacher looked at me and said, oh, this is so much better. The kids can actually touch it.

MISDARY: Wyatt says the point isn't just to get students fully caught up; it's to get a clearer picture of where they are and what they need.

WYATT: This baby was with us for five to six weeks and did not grow at all. We need to make sure that we have that student on Tier 3 interventions when school starts, if not already.

MISDARY: NPR spoke with several school district leaders who said they are taking a similar approach to summer school. They also said perhaps the hardest part about this wasn't enticing kids, but teachers, because remote learning left so many feeling exhausted and desperate for the summer off. So Grand Prairie's Associate Superintendent Patricia Lewis says they tried a few things.

LEWIS: We did have to pay a little bit more than we normally pay.

MISDARY: Lewis says they also made an emotional appeal to teachers.

LEWIS: This is going back to your first love. Why did you get into the profession? And we wanted them to see that you can have fun.

MISDARY: They even hosted a pep rally for teachers, rebranding summer school as My Camp.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING, CHANTING)

MISDARY: The pitch was an easy sell for gym teacher Jonathan Casper.

CASPER: I love camp, so anything that involves the word camp, like, I'm totally sold on it.

MISDARY: Mother Lashonda Ross (ph) was sold, too.

LASHONDA ROSS: My reaction was, where do I sign up?

MISDARY: Ross has a rising fourth and fifth grader in Grand Prairie and after hearing about the camp, told her kids...

ROSS: Yeah, you guys should go because it's just not about improving your academics. I want them to have fun, but I also want them to grow and learn something that they didn't know.

MISDARY: And that balance is key, experts say, to keeping kids engaged. It's also important to see this summer as the beginning of schools' post-pandemic efforts, not the end all and be all, says Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation.

CATHERINE AUGUSTINE: Even if it's a six-week summer program, that can't catch up kids to all the material that wasn't taught over this past year.

MISDARY: But what it can do, school leaders say, is remind kids who spent much of the year at home what it's like to be in school and maybe, just maybe, make it a little more fun than they remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: Our secret mission...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Our secret mission...

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: ...Is...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: ...Is...

(CROSSTALK)

MISDARY: Rosemary Misdary, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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