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School districts intensify summer programs to combat learning lost during the pandemic

Summer is here, but the disruptions caused by the pandemic are affecting summer plans of some students and teachers. Educators around the country are scrambling to help students catch up. Many are utilizing billions in federal stimulus funds to beef up their summer school programs. Stephanie Sy reports from Atlanta.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Summer is clearly here, but the disruptions caused by the pandemic are affecting the summer plans of some students and teachers.

    Educators around the country are scrambling to help students catch up. Many are utilizing billions in federal stimulus funds to beef up their summer school programs.

    Stephanie Sy visited two Atlanta area school districts to see their approach toward helping for middle schoolers.

  • Moneisha White:

    All right, have a good day, love you.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's 8:00 on a mid-June morning, and instead of enjoying summer break, 12-year-old Christopher Jones is headed to school.

  • Moneisha White:

    Christopher was an A/B student, honor roll student, before the pandemic. And when the pandemic came, his grades dropped B, C, D.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Like other schools, John Lewis Invictus Academy, where Christopher goes, shut its doors in March of 2020. When it reopened earlier this year, 80 percent of its 950 students chose to stay virtual, but not Christopher. Home was not exactly conducive to learning.

  • Christopher Jones:

    My gosh, it was hard, while I'm on Zoom, my mom cussing out my brother.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Christopher Jones:

    My dog is barking. So, my teacher is always telling me to mute myself.

  • Woman:

    I am who I am, not who you think I am.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    To address these challenges, educators are now pouring millions of dollars of federal stimulus funds into rigorous summer programs to try and catch kids up, says Atlanta superintendent Lisa Herring.

  • Lisa Herring:

    The core business of our school system and school systems across the county is teaching and learning. It was disrupted. We have a responsibility to do something immediately for our children.

  • Woman:

    Who's the main character?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What that means in Atlanta Public Schools is a full-day 9:00-4:00 summer school that principal Ramon Garner says homes in on the basics.

  • Ramon Garner:

    The really big difference for this summer academic recovery is that it is focused on math and English, 90 minutes each content area. So, this is a total of three hours that kids are getting specifically in those content areas.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Watching her son lose ground is what worries Moneisha White, a single parent who works the night shift as a lab technician.

  • Moneisha White:

    With the pandemic, I see a lot of stigmas put on low-income kids, that they're not learning.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You don't want him…

  • Moneisha White:

    No, I don't.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    … to become a statistic like that.

  • Moneisha White:

    No.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Here in Atlanta and across the country, students of color were hit harder by the pandemic than their white counterparts. A McKinsey & Company study found that all students might be nine months behind in math, but that Black and Hispanic students could be as far as a year behind.

  • Ramon Garner:

    This is a high-poverty area. Our school is a Title I school, 100 percent free and reduced lunch, single-payer households. And so home life for some of our students can be very, very challenging.

  • Man:

    Lunch, friends. Here you go.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The summer program provides food, breakfast, lunch, weekend meals to take home on Fridays, and snacks.

  • Woman:

    After you put your sugar in it, shake, shake, shake.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Hands-on afternoon sessions, such as the science of ice cream making and flag football, are meant to acclimate students back after a year-and-a-half of social distancing.

    For many tweens, middle school is fraught with academic and social challenges that the pandemic made harder.

  • Moneisha White:

    They're growing, they're going through puberty, so their bodies are changing. And, oh, my gosh, they're very awkward at that age.

  • Ramon Garner:

    A big part of middle school is the social aspect, being able to be in the classroom with students, being able to see your friends, being able to eat lunch every day, things that in the past we have taken for granted.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The amount of learning loss during the pandemic is still difficult to pin down. Standardized tests were canceled last year, then reinstated when many students were still doing virtual learning, making the assessments unreliable.

  • Cliff Jones:

    We know that our kids need us more now after this event than ever before.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But chief academic officer Cliff Jones in Atlanta's Fulton County School District has received some troubling data through a partnership with Georgia State University.

  • Cliff Jones:

    Typically, in a 9.5-month school year, our kids made 9.5 months of growth or more. What we saw during the pandemic was that they made 5.3 months in literacy and 7.2 months in math.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A rising eighth grader at Sandy Springs Middle School, Harmonee Jackson is having to attend summer school for the first time.

    Before the pandemic forced school online, she regularly got 90s out of 100 on her math tests.

    I know it's going to be hard to ask this, but what was your lowest score during the pandemic, during virtual?

  • Harmonee Jackson:

    It might have been a 50.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How did it feel to get the 50?

  • Harmonee Jackson:

    It was really shocking, because I know I have always been super good at it. And then, suddenly, you're seeing these low scores, and you're like, what happened?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Principal Laurie Woodruff wants it to feel like camp. That means literature discussions in an outside courtyard, a scavenger hunt to teach the Pythagorean theorem, and building a roller coaster to demonstrate basic physics.

  • Laurie Woodruff:

    No child wants to be in summer school, right?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Right.

  • Laurie Woodruff:

    So, we have tried to make it a very welcoming place, that they want to be here.

  • Harmonee Jackson:

    Being in the classroom is the best.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Do you feel like you're starting to regain the confidence?

  • Harmonee Jackson:

    I really am. I'm already starting to get the 90s back that I used to start getting.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That's amazing.

    To help students like Harmonee, Fulton County doubled the number of schools offering summer classes, expanded course options, and opened the program to all students. But finding enough teachers was a challenge, even after $1,000 bonuses were offered.

  • Laurie Woodruff:

    Our teachers, quite honestly, are exhausted. I could have probably put about 30 more kids in summer school had I had more teachers.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Summer school is just one tool in bringing kids up to grade level. Research shows that more time in the classroom during the regular year and specialized tutoring programs also help.

    Both school districts have no illusions that a few weeks in the summer alone can combat the COVID slide.

  • Lisa Herring:

    Because our belief is not that everything will be resolved at the end of June 2021.

  • Cliff Jones:

    We know that we have to have a long-term perspective on our plan moving forward. This can't be made up in one year.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Both Atlanta Public and Fulton County districts have three-year plans to get students back up to speed. Summer programs are voluntary, unlike regular school, and registration fell short of district goals, meaning many students will lag behind in the fall.

    But, for some, like Harmonee, there are signs of progress.

  • Dee Jackson:

    I'm so happy that the excitement is back on her face. I definitely know, without the summer school program, she would not be prepared as a rising eighth grader.

  • Ramon Garner:

    When I see the faces get off the school buses every day, I see those kids smiling, and they're coming back every day, because they could very well not come. But they show up.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, now that the pandemic is easing, schools are trying to show up for them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Atlanta.

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