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There’s huge need for full-time summer school, yet it won’t happen

Let’s quit dancing around the issue of whether some students should be in school, in-person, all summer to make up for what they have lost during this pandemic-damaged school year.

Of course they should. It’s the least we can do, and almost certainly insufficient to the challenges we face. But it’s a good starting point. 

Still, as a society we seem incapable of mustering the collective will to make it happen.

While efforts are underway to provide more opportunities for kids this summer, and funds from the American Rescue Plan could help, they will fall short of what’s needed, especially for the low-income students of color who have suffered the greatest losses this year.

This is one of those rare moments of true clarity, when we can see how broken and riddled with counterproductive incentives our education system is, and how far removed it has become from doing what everyone involved says it is designed to do: Preparing our children to become engaged, productive citizens.

If we can at least agree that the 2020-21 school year has exacerbated opportunity gaps and increased the likelihood that students suffering the consequences of those gaps have fallen farther behind their more affluent peers, then optional, full-time summer school provides an obvious, if partial, remedy.

Here are the arguments against full-time summer school that I’ve heard from advocates, parents, and educators. (I disagree with most of them.)

  1. This year has been exhausting for everyone, and downtime is essential to recharge and be ready to hit the ground running when ‘real school’ resumes in August.
  2. As restrictions lift and the country reopens, kids need to be able to enjoy a real summer, with family reunions, vacations, trips, summer camp, etc.
  3. In many urban districts, including Denver, some schools lack air-conditioning, which makes holding classes during the summer untenable.
  4. School districts would have to come up with millions of dollars to pay those teachers who would be willing to sacrifice their summers to teach full time.

To be clear, here, I am not advocating that anyone be pressured to teach or attend summer school if that’s not what they wish to do. But please examine the arguments above and ask yourself: Do any of them in any way take into consideration the needs of the students who would benefit most this year from 2-½ months of summer classes?

The obvious answer is no.

Points 1 and 2 above might hold for educators and for more affluent families. But the majority of Denver Public Schools students aren’t going off to summer camp or to the beach or Disneyland. They’ll be at home while their parents work. The recharging they need would take place in a classroom.

The second two arguments against full-time  summer school  in 2021 could be resolved with some creative thinking. Who says classes have to be held in suffocatingly hot school buildings? Couldn’t school districts negotiate with libraries, recreation centers, and other facilities for air-conditioned space?

And as far as paying teachers go, there is a straightforward solution, and then there is one that requires a bit more vision and courage. Either should be possible, thanks to the massive amount of federal stimulus money that will begin flowing soon to districts with large numbers of low-income children.

The simple solution would be to use some of the money pouring in from the American Rescue Plan to pay teachers who are willing to work over the summer. Hold classes. Problem solved.

The more courageous solution would be to trust parents. Use some stimulus funds to put cash money in their hands, and create some kind of easily accessible list of options that would allow them to find high quality summer learning opportunities for their children. This could include paying teachers to staff small learning pods.

In fact, an effort is underway to allow Colorado voters to weigh in on making such options permanent. The Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) Program, if approved by voters in November, would provide funding for families to choose from a menu of approved out-of-school learning providers, including tutoring in reading, math, science, and writing, extra services for special needs students, and career and technical education-training programs.

If passed, LEAP must meet all of our low-income, linguistically diverse families where they are, especially if a large percentage of these families have never searched for out-of-school-time activities/programs for their children.

In any case, LEAP won’t help this summer, when the need is so great. Forward-thinking nonprofits, like the African Leadership Group, are already planning to hold summer tutoring programs to help their children make up some of what they’ve lost this year. As noble as these efforts are, they lack the reach to touch all the children who need help.

If, as appears likely, school districts like Denver Public Schools settle for well-intentioned but insufficient, hastily assembled efforts to attack the problem this summer, then administrators, school board members, and their supporters should be held accountable for the entirely predictable results.

Helping parents pay for what their children need for the entire summer is a cleaner and simpler solution than relying on school districts to muster whatever effort they can. While whatever dollar amount policymakers might allocate this effort would almost certainly be insufficient to meet the needs of families, let’s consider it a down-payment on bigger changes to come, and the sooner the better.

This is a moment for urgency, and one thing is clear: Meaningful education can — and in this case must — take place outside the purview of traditional structures.