Schools struggle to meet demand for summer programs

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Maria Navarro-Moreno and Maddie Taylor can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about the life cycle of a monarch butterfly.

“I have one [Monarch] egg, ”says Maria,“ It can hatch anytime, but there is a 10% chance it will not hatch.

“It hatches, then it becomes a caterpillar, then it eats and eats and eats,” Maddie said.

Fifth-graders attended classes at Hidden Valley Elementary in Savage four days a week in July. They spent their time learning to garden, going on excursions, honing their math and reading skills, and doing hands-on science experiments with butterflies near the pond near their school.

“We can do field trips and do science experiments,” Maria said. “We have to go to Crayola [Experience at Mall of America]. ”

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District has seen an increase in the number of students in their summer programs this year, about a third since 2019. Jason Sellars, district director of community education, said the families were eager to have their children in a cohesive environment. in-person environment after a difficult year of pandemic learning.

Eight-year-old Jarvon Anunda works in an art class with his fellow Savage students.

Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

“One of the main reasons they wanted in-person learning was the disjointed in-person experience their students had over the past year. We want them to have fun. We want them to go to school. We want them to build up their stamina for the school year, ”Sellars said. “We have around 30 kindergartens in our system that have never been to school because parents have prevented them from entering for health and safety reasons. This is their first experience at school and they are entering first year.

It was not easy to put together a summer school program in 2021. In January and February, when planning began, administrators were unsure what kind of funding would be available, what the spread would look like. of the virus by the summer or what kind of health restrictions they would face.

But Sellars said state and federal COVID funds have enabled his district to expand its bus program, incorporate more field trips, and hire more teachers, specialists and cultural connections.

Yet health restrictions, last-minute registrations and delays in legislative funding meant that they were unable to accommodate all of the students who were clamoring for in-person time with teachers this summer.

“We had six kindergarten classes two summers ago. We have nine this summer, and if we had had time at the last minute to be able to add two to three more classrooms and had time to add staff and add another building, we could have ”, Sellars said.

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District is not alone.

Stillwater’s public school summer programs have seen their summer student numbers increase by more than a third. But Stillwater deputy superintendent Jennifer Cherry said not everyone who wanted to enroll their students had a spot.

“We had a little trouble recruiting staff,” Cherry said. “This is the first year we have had to look outside of our district to hire teachers for our summer program. Fortunately, we were able to hire and fully staff. But I keep hearing the same from other districts – that it was hard to find teachers. ”

In Rochester Public Schools during the winter, when many districts were overwhelmed by uncertainty about funding, health restrictions and ever-changing learning scenarios, some administrators decided to take a leap of faith. and expand the programming anyway.

“It sounds crazy. Why did we undertake this major overhaul in the middle of a pandemic year when people were exhausted and frustrated? Said Executive Director of Community Education Amy Eich. “It was about not missing an opportunity for our children, quite simply. We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, and the federal COVID relief funds, focused on summer learning for some of those funds, was something we couldn’t ignore. ”

Eich District doubled its summer programming time from three to six weeks and increased its elementary days from 4 to 6 hours. They have embarked on a hiring wave, adding special education coaches, mental health experts and specialist teachers to their sites. They have reduced the size of their classrooms to give children more space to distance themselves socially and more time with teachers. They’ve written a new program to offer in-person high school credit recovery classes for the first time.

But not all of the students got the in-person programming they wanted. Ryan Behnken, 15, a sophomore at Mayo High School, had been thrilled to attend high school classes in person for the first time this summer, after choosing to take an online learning year-round.

“I’m more of a person who has to learn in person, so I don’t have a lot of distractions and all that. Getting online hasn’t helped at all, ”Behnken said. “Two of my classes I failed by like 10 points or something crazy. I really struggled with it online.

But when Behnken showed up for the first day of what she thought was an in-person summer school, teachers handed her a Chromebook and told her she would do her credit recovery online.

“I don’t feel like I’m learning anything. I just feel like someone is talking to me and not teaching, ”Behnken said.

Even though Behnken High School developed a brand new in-person program for six of its high school credit recovery classes this year, there were still 23 other classes that they didn’t have the time, resources or staff to do. to develop into an in-person experience.

Eich said she hoped they would be able to convince legislative leaders that this new approach to summer school was worth it.

“Our hope is that we can prove the effectiveness of this new model so that we can say, ‘Yes, it deserves an investment to make it happen that way,'” said Eich. “The COVID money will last two summers. After that, we will have to look at the district resources or find additional resources. This is our chance to say, “Can we show that this new model is effective and deserves funding at this level?”

Rochester, like many districts in Minnesota, is going out of its way to find new ways to meet the needs of students this summer. But after more than a year of severely disrupted school, a large number of students are still struggling. Many educators know that their work to meet these needs has only just begun.

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