Cool Summer School: An Appalachian District Leads the Way

By Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda

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Headlines announce and policies pronounce that 2021 will be the mother of all summer schools.  With schools and districts scrambling to make up for learning loss due to the pandemic, dollars are being thrown at summer schools to lift up students in order to prepare for the start of the upcoming academic year. Summer enrichment and remediation programs will get at least $1.2 billion.  “As schools approach the end of a full year of pandemic learning, however, summer school is being reimagined and broadened into what is likely to be the most expansive — and expensive — summer programming in modern history.” (Washington Post -Joe Heim, Valerie Strauss, Laura Meckler)  

Yet, summer school often has a reputation for sluggish engagement with limited impact at raising the performance of struggling students. It is often viewed by students themselves as punitive. “I didn’t make it during the school year so now they are going to take my summer from me.”  Given the overwhelming numbers of students who have slipped precipitously during the school year it is understandable to want to use this particular  summer for in person teaching and learning experiences.   Is it possible?  We think that a school district in eastern Tennessee is showing creativity, rigor, and smarts in their approach.   

Super Cool Summer School 

Carter County School District has a PK-12 student population of 5100 students located in the Appalachian region. Under the visionary leadership of Superintendent Dr.Tracy McAbee, a leadership team designed a 4-week experience “seeking to engage and to motivate learners this summer by making summer school cool and relevant.” The district is taking full advantage of their location to provide both an academic program with the remarkable resources of the outdoors that their location provides.  

With imagination and a commitment to an integrated curriculum , Supervisor of Curriculum, Dr. LaDonna Boone, notes, “Our students K-8 will be fully engaged in exciting, language-rich programs each day that culminate with a full day Friday field experience.  We love living right  in our beautiful Applalachian mountains and we intend to make full use of them as a motivator for our students.”  

The summer school is a purposeful link to showcase the integration of the sciences with language arts.  The program will run from 8 AM to 2 PM Monday through Thursday with a rich array of activities for learners in support of building up their skill levels and their confidence.   Friday, students will board buses for the nearby mountains for their guided nature experiences that will be planned in conjunction with the curriculum during the week. Working with a lead science teacher, Tyler Chambers,  Dr. Boone hopes not only to get students hiking and interacting with nature  as young scientists but to bring back their observations as the basis for their language and math program during the other four days of the week.   

There is more at work here, the district leadership is looking to develop interest and engagement in the sciences for the students in Carter County moving forward for the long term.   “We have a very strong athletic program and our students are motivated.  We want to engender the same in the sciences and see that our summer school in 2021 can be a launch for renewing those efforts.”   

Lessons from Carter County 

With the fatigue and demands of the pandemic on teachers, students, and families this past year, the last thing we need is a frustrating re-entery into on-site learning that smacks of listlessness.  Students are going to want to enjoy their summers as are their teachers. As the recent Summer Learning Report from the Spencer Foundation notes two recommended guiding principles for developing summer programs should be to provide creative, inquiry-based forms of learning and to build from students’ interests and to take a whole child approach to their development.  Here are a few lessons from Carter County District as well as some additional ideas we have been picking up from other districts faced with this challenge: 

  1. Interview and listen to your learners as soon as possible  before the start of summer school to obtain their ideas and interests so that your teaching staff has time to include in their planning. 
  2. Look for community learning opportunities to integrate naturally with your academic program.  
  3. Emphasize language rich experiences not only through academic vocabulary but sentence starters to help students share orally and discuss their experiences. 
  4. Field trips built into the routine of the week will likely prove most successful.  
  5. Encourage media making for students to document their experience.  

Carter literally is looking in their own backyard for inspiration and engagement. Not all of our schools are located near beautiful mountains, forests, marshlands, or beaches. Yet, the possibilities for direct integration into our communities can serve as a spark to create summer experiences that can ignite interest, a touch of summer camp, and purposeful learning.

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