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How Maine Educators Are Working To Make Summer School Less Dreaded

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Students at a summer program at Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, Maine.

Summer school — it’s a long been a dreaded rite of passage for students who are falling behind. Movies have been made about it, and some districts now refuse to even call it “summer school” because of the stigma.

But now, some schools are finding that some of the traditional ways they’ve approached programs in the past aren’t working, particularly at younger levels. That’s forced some districts to make changes.

For the Wiscasset School Department, the challenge of helping at-risk elementary school students over the summer was brought into focus last year, when a heat wave left kids sweltering.

“[Students] were like, dying on the vine there a few times because it was incredibly hot last summer,” says Wiscasset Curriculum Coordinator Patricia Watts.

Watts says as temperatures approached triple digits, students stopped showing up.

“Because, it’s summer,” she says. “I visited a couple times. It was very hot. Kids just wanted to be playing. They didn’t want to be in school.”

With some students attending summer school maybe once or twice a week, Watts says the district found that many students’ academic scores stalled, or even went backwards, after the summer program. This year she decided the program just didn’t make sense.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Oxford Hills School District Guidance Counselor Pat Carson works with a student on building flower beds at the Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, Maine.

“We decided that it was probably in the best interest to put that money into our school year and work with our specialists in improving the reading and math,” Watts says.

Experts have long known that summer learning is important to help students maintain their skills or catch up with their peers. A 2015 study from the University of Southern Maine found that students, particularly those from low-income households, saw large drops in their reading and math scores over the summer. Researchers say summer programs can help narrow that gap.

But the effectiveness of specific summer programs hasn’t been studied much until recently. Catherine Augustine of the nonprofit RAND Corp. says her research has found that it’s worth it to invest in summer learning.

At the elementary level, Augustine says, summer programs need certain aspects for academic success. That starts with getting kids to actually show up for an extended period of time.

“That sounds like a simple ingredient, but it’s hard to achieve,” she says.

Augustine says there’s no one way to get more students to attend summer school. Air conditioning helps, but not all schools have it. What is important, she says, is for districts to invest in these programs. That means hiring knowledgeable teachers who offer quality lessons.

Reaching these goals — and getting kids to show up — has been difficult for some districts.

“We had a middle school principal, and he said, ‘This doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,’” says Patrick Carson of the Oxford Hills School District in South Paris. “Why put kids back in an environment where they failed? Only to struggle again?”

Carson and other staff say students weren’t seeing success in the traditional summer school model. So, about six years ago, the district overhauled its summer program.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Student Destiny Davis practices cutting a zucchini at a summer program at Roberts Farm Preserve in Norway, Maine.

Instead of a classroom, some students now come to Roberts Farm Preserve, in Norway. About 40 middle schoolers come here for three weeks during the summer. And it’s about the furthest thing from a classroom that you could imagine.

Part of the day’s focus is on recreation — swimming and kayaking. The rest of the time students learn about math, science and reading through activities like searching for invasive plants and building greenhouses.

Student Destiny Davis says she likes how different this is from regular school.

“There’s more activities to do,” she says. “It’s much more fun. We do activities straight off the bat.”

Take a subject like literacy. On this day, students are baking zucchini bread using the vegetables they picked directly from the farm. But as part of the activity, teacher Jen Chaffin pulls aside a few kids. She shows them a note-taking technique and tells them to record the baking process. They’ll use the notes to write a cookbook and newsletter later.

“So that’s your challenge for today,” Chaffin tells the students as they scramble over to the mixing bowls and spoons.

Staff like what they’re seeing. Last year, the average attendance rate here was nearly 95 percent. And the school says more than 30 percent of students saw their reading levels go up.

Augustine says summer school doesn’t need to be as drastically different as something like Roberts Farm Preserve. But she says if schools focus on getting good teachers and making kids feel welcome, students could find that summer school is something to look forward to — not dread.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.