Despite Limited Funds, Maine Districts Are Expanding — And Transforming — Summer School

Aug 14, 2018

Summer school is changing — it used to be the place where high schoolers made up failed classes, but some districts have doubled summer enrollment in recent years.

Administrators are prioritizing younger students, as well, trying to catch them up so they don’t fall behind later on. But limited funding means that many children are still missing out.

In a large, canvas tent near the Portland waterfront, middle schooler Mo Abdalla bends paper clips and rips up tape as he attempts to build an anemometer — a wind-speed device for a boat.

“Let me get you a bigger piece of tape,” Abdalla says as he pokes holes into small Dixie cups.

“Now here, hold that,” he tells another student.

It’s part of of what school officials call a “summer academy.” It’s a new program for Portland middle schoolers, many who are behind in subjects like math and science. But instead of putting their heads in books, they spend the day sailing and performing experiments.

It isn’t until Principal Ben Donaldson comes over that it seems more like school and not camp.

“When you’re driving a car, what are you trying to keep track of?” Donaldson asks the students.

“How fast? Speed. Wind speed.” Abdalla says.

“So, wind speed and direction,” Donaldson says. “And this’ll help you figure it out.”

“OK,” Abdalla says, then starts work again on his tape-strewn project.

“This one is not like summer school or summer camp,” he says. “Because summer camp is all, like, fun. And summer school is, all school. But this one’s in the middle.”

“It’s like, both,” another student adds.

This program is emblematic of a shift in how districts across Maine are approaching summer school. Some have embraced summer learning over the past half-decade, with cities like Portland and Lewiston more than doubling summer enrollment.

For Portland’s director of intervention, Gail Cressey, the push was sparked by research on “summer learning loss” — the idea that during the summer, students can lose up to 30 percent of what they learned during the school year. It disproportionately affects students from lower-income households.

About five years ago, the district piloted some summer programs to try to reverse that summer loss, and students did well. Cressey says more than 80 percent of those who attended maintained or improved their reading scores from the spring.

“It really gave a chance for schools to do some work, quite frankly, in science, that they hadn’t been able to do during the school year,” Cressey says.

While summer school used to be largely reserved for high schoolers who were behind in their credits, that’s changing, too. The Windham Raymond School District targets students as young as 5 or 6. Curriculum Director Christine Hesler says the district brings about 60 incoming kindergarten and first-graders to school for six weeks each summer.

“What we’re trying to do is help those students get ready for kindergarten,” she says. “Because, looking at that data, they’re behind in where they should be. We want to make sure they are at the starting line when kindergarten starts.”

The other big driver of this shift is the state’s recent move toward proficiency-based education. While the legislature passed a bill this year to make diplomas based on proficiency optional, many schools are continuing with the system.

Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia says under the new system, students may only need to master one specific standard during the summer. So instead of retaking an entire biology class, a student may just come in for a few days to learn a single subject like, say, DNA sequencing.

“It’s just as important as the school year. Learning is continuous,” he says. “And we need to provide lots of pathways for kids to be successful. I think we have to be responsible and acknowledge that we need a program like this.”

Yet while more districts are expanding into the summer, school funding hasn’t followed suit. Most state and local money is used for the school year. State Rep. Teresa Pierce sponsored a 2017 bill to create a state summer learning fund, but it was vetoed by the governor.

The federal government does offer some money for this purpose, like Title I funding for students from lower-income households. Districts also receive nearly $6 million from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center program.

A 2017 evaluation found that nearly 3,000 Maine students were being served in the summer with some of those funds — a 20 percent increase from four years prior. Yet Theresa Violette, the Title I director with Augusta Public Schools, says it’s not enough.

Augusta Public Schools used to offer an on-site summer program, but Violette says it was expensive, costing up to $25,000, much of which was spent busing kids to and from school.

This year, the district decided to save money and send books home with students instead.

“I just can’t see taking that,” Violette says. “When that’s paying for a part of a position, that you could have nine months out of a year. Versus the hours of time in the summer.”

Amy Pichette, a program director at LearningWorks, which provides out-of-school programming in southern Maine, says with the current funding constraints, many students are still missing out on summer enrichment. She found that more than 85 school districts across the state report a majority of their students receive free or reduced-price lunch, yet don’t benefit from any 21st Century funds for summer learning.

Pichette says that leaves thousands of students without badly needed resources.

“Their families can’t afford sending them somewhere,” she says. “Whatever [summer learning] it is, it would be so beneficial.”

Back in Portland, Abdalla says he’s glad he was able to conduct science experiments with his friends this summer.

“Sometimes we have fun,” he says. “Sometimes we work. So it’s pretty much — good.”

It all makes him want to return to this summer program next year — just another way that summer learning is changing.

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