We are approaching the close of a school year like none other. Amidst a pandemic, New Orleans schools rallied to ensure our children got as strong of an education as possible, even from afar. Our educators have done hard, challenging, and ultimately phenomenal work. So have our students and their families.
Even with this hard work, many students will end the year without learning all that they needed to. There was so much to contend with that was far beyond their control, or the control of their teachers and families. Therefore, there is much left to be done, and our children need more time to do it.
This pandemic has taken so much from us, including children’s regular attendance in their classes. By NOLA-PS’s estimate, approximately 1 in 3 students have missed more than 10 days of school. And even students that were present (virtually or in person) may have had a harder time learning online or learning through significant trauma.
This is a daunting reality. But, while so much about COVID-19 has been uncertain, there is a clear step we can take to increase learning time, and our schools are taking it: summer school. Of course, students and teachers need some time off after this trying school year. But some summer school could make a real difference for our children.
Many schools in New Orleans are hopeful about this possibility. Schools that have shared their initial plans with NSNO, including charter management operators of our largest K-8 schools, indicate that they will significantly expand their offerings this summer. In some cases, they will educate four times more students than in previous years of summer school. Most of their programming will run about four weeks, which allows some time off for students and those educators who choose to teach summer school.
There is no denying, of course, that summer school can be a hard sell. So, it is important that schools demonstrate that this is not a punishment for students, nor is it an indicator of their academic potential. Instead, it is an opportunity to catch up and learn more, which our students are eager to do. For instance, when the team at Lafayette Academy asked their families if they would be interested in summer programming, 70% said, “yes.”
For most of the school and charter network leaders we spoke to, summer school will be in-person with COVID-19 precautions. This means that our young people also get to be together and socialize. Our schools are planning rigorous lessons, but many are also planning outdoor sports and “summer-camp” style activities. We are hopeful that such things help raise attendance, which research says is key to summer schools’ success.
Schools are committed to ensuring that their academic support is engaging and dynamic. For example, Bricolage Academy is launching a summer partnership with the National Society of Black Engineers. Students will be provided with their own individual tablets and receive training in drones, robotics, and coding. ARISE Schools are building on site “field trips” with the nonprofit STEM NOLA. They are also offering daily enrichment programming including woodworking, theater, gardening, and sports.
Public schools provide additional services and supports for students, and our summer schools are no exception. At Warren Easton’s summer school programs, for instance, students will have access to two social workers on site, one of whom is in their school-based health clinic. Across the city, after a year marked by disconnection, our children in summer school will be able to connect with caring adults like counselors and school nurses. They will have the bolstering power of a community of their peers and mentors. Schools are connective, healing spaces in addition to academic ones.
Of course, schools need money to pull this off. They will need compelling stipends for teachers and staff, who are understandably exhausted after this year. They will need funding for materials, supplies, air-conditioning, technology, and transportation. We know there is significant federal aid coming to schools to address the impact of the pandemic on their students. This is both critical and insufficient. At NSNO, we are proud to be able to offer the Summer 2021 Learning Acceleration Fund, providing a total of $1.5 million in grants to our public schools for additional instruction and enrichment this summer.
With their hallmark dedication, innovation, and care, our schools will help students learn what they may have missed this year and set the stage for a strong school year to come. As we have shown over the last year, be it hotspots or hot meals, schools and our leaders in NOLA will continue to lead on serving our children as best we can.