Summer school programs across St. Louis area offer academic boost after a year of disruption
EAST ST. LOUIS — It’s still spring semester for students in this Metro East district, where an extra month was added to the school year to combat learning loss during the pandemic.
“The extended school year has given Lincoln (Middle School) the opportunity to get back what the pandemic took from us,” said principal David Shanks. “Nothing compares to in-person learning for most of our young scholars.”
Schools across the St. Louis region have bolstered their summer offerings, both to help struggling students catch up and to ease stress for families. For some children, summer school is their first time in a classroom in more than a year.
Most students can be expected to lose a month or two in reading and math skills over a typical summer. The added effects of virtual learning and pandemic-related disruptions are still unclear. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has warned of significant damage to student learning and social-emotional wellness. The added summer programming is funded in part by federal pandemic relief funds.
Principals said they called more parents this year to encourage them to send their kids to summer school. Math and reading interventionists were hired with relief funds in Northwest School District in Jefferson County. The specialists are able to tutor students one-on-one or in small groups to address any learning gaps from the school year.
Every charter school in St. Louis is offering some type of programming, including Soulard School’s first-ever summer school. The summer programming “is really focused on methods to address academic recovery,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
Public schools aren’t the only ones ramping up their summer offerings.
At Sacred Heart Catholic School in Florissant, private donations helped create new programs at Little Spartan Academy, Spartan Academy and Sacred Heart Music Academy this summer. The goal is to keep students engaged and make the transition to the next school year less disruptive, said Maria Lemakis of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
New summer camp programs are being offered at Our Lady of Lourdes in University City, at the request of parents, to combat potential learning loss and get reacclimated to the school building. Three of the students attending the in-person camp had been virtual learners through the school year.
“The camps have helped these students with socialization, reconnection with school and getting them accustomed to attending school in person in a less stressful atmosphere,” Lemakis said.
Still, not all families are on board with extra school time this summer.
“It’s going to be years before teachers, students and parents get past the emotional stress the past year has placed on us,” said Jay Cunneen, a former superintendent and educational consultant near Chicago. “People are looking at summer as a time to recharge their batteries, to get away from the stress, for their kids to have fun and play again, and maybe take a family vacation. Everyone is burned out and needs a break.”
That’s why summer school looks a little more like camp this year, district leaders said. University City schools are two weeks into Camp U, a new hands-on summer program for about 450 students in first through eighth grades. The district extended its summer schedule to five full days a week for six weeks. In prior years, the summer session was half days, four days a week for four weeks with an average enrollment of 300 students.
They added more experiential learning, field trips and partnerships with local attractions, said Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley.
“We’re definitely focused on literacy and numeracy, but summer is also a time for fun and joy, and we wanted them to have some sense of exploration and discovery,” she said.
Hardin-Bartley said it’s too soon to understand how the pandemic and virtual learning affected students’ progress, but the summer session will provide some insight to help teachers plan for the fall.
“We know the social-emotional learning needs have increased, and definitely the academic needs are going to be there,” she said.
Students in the East St. Louis School District first had the option to return to school buildings in February, nearly a year after COVID-19 forced classes to move online. The virtual school day was shorter, causing high school students to lose 30 instructional hours per course and elementary students to lose 180 hours of reading and math lessons.
At Lincoln Middle School, teachers managed to get through 80% of the curriculum by the end of May, according to Shanks, the principal. District leaders also noted an increase in the average number of students with failing and incomplete grades. In April, the decision was made to extend the school year through June for all students, including preschoolers. Only seniors who graduated in May were exempt.
“I knew that was the right thing for us to do,” said sixth grader Ra’niyah Artis, 13. “I’m too young to be online. I feel better in person.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.