Essential Solutions 6-MIN. READ

How to Create a Successful Summer Learning Program

By: Mara Rodríguez 05/24/2021
Learn how to create a successful and ambitious summer learning program.
An educator helps a smiling student who is working on a laptop.

According to surveys Curriculum Associates recently conducted, planning for summer learning is high on the list of school leaders’ concerns. To help ease educators’ anxieties and give them concrete advice on planning for this summer in particular, we conducted a series of interviews with districts across the country that have had successful and ambitious summer programs. The education leaders we spoke to shared insight as granular as “make sure the first communication about summer school comes from a student’s teacher” and as grand as “remove barriers to participation.”

Plan Like It’s the School Year

Over and over again, the administrators and teachers we spoke to about their summer programs emphasized the importance of planning early and in great detail.

Secure the Funding

Fabian Core, director of school performance and accountability for Florida’s Broward County Public Schools (BCPS), told us: “When we started [planning] a month ago, we started one with the funding—because if we don't have the funding, it doesn't matter.”

Check Your State’s Department of Education (DOE) Requirements

Some states (including Tennessee and North Carolina) have passed laws that not only require districts to offer summer programs for Grades K–8 students but also mandate specifics such as the length of the program, hours of instruction, and more. Before you plan anything, make sure your team has up-to-date information from your DOE so you can design your program to meet state directives.

Determine Dates

There are many factors to consider when you’re determining the best dates for your program, including: 

  • The amount of time students and teachers will need to recharge after the end of the school year
  • National or religious holidays and popular times for families to take vacations
  • Staff availability—If you’ll be employing teachers from outside your district, you’ll need to make sure they’ve finished their regular school-year duties before joining your program.
  • Local events—For example, summer program administrators for Highland Community School District (HCSD) in Riverside, Iowa said popular state and county fairs can influence their schedule.

Choose Sites

If your program is meeting in person, you’ll need to determine which school buildings would be best to use. Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) in Orange County, California, for example, plans to use its Title I and language-immersion school sites for their summer program because most of their summer-school students will be from those schools.

When choosing your sites, be sure to check summer construction plans, including work being done on wireless systems. Nobody wants jackhammers and spotty internet service during learning time.

Have Clear Goals

Clarifying goals and aligning plans and metrics to those goals is critical to your program’s success.

Determine Students’ Needs

If you don’t know what students need, it’s hard to determine how you’d like them to grow. Use end-of-year data from the i-Ready Diagnostic or other assessment programs to determine which students need the most support and the areas in which they need it.

Hone Your Focus

Whether your summer program is for 15 days or for six weeks, odds are it won’t be enough time to accomplish everything you want to do, which is why it’s important to hone your focus. As you’re deciding where to focus, be sure to consider not only students’ needs but also what your program will be able to deliver, based on the resources you have. Districts we spoke to explained that they sometimes have to narrow or modify their focus to match the expertise of the staff they had available.

Make Attendance a Factor

Beyond your academic learning goals, student attendance needs to be a key metric that is monitored and prioritized. In Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning, a 2011 report from the RAND Corporation, researchers state, “Studies that examined the link between outcomes and attendance found that increased attendance improves outcomes.”

Select Students Strategically

This summer, many districts are anticipating their largest programs ever due to more students needing support with COVID-19–related unfinished learning and requirements from state education departments. Stephanie McClain, manager of academic operations and school support at Tennessee’s Shelby County Schools (SCS), said her district will invite 30,000 students to take part in their summer programs.

Create Your Criteria

Student selection criteria for the districts we interviewed included: 

  • Characteristics previously identified by the district to be “high-risk” factors, including students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and status as English Learners
  • Students’ academic performance levels—Most districts we spoke to said they would target students who were performing a year or more below grade level. Jodi Washington, supervisor of teacher development at BCPS, however, said her district would invite students performing in the “middle of the road . . . because we wanted to make sure that we were able to mitigate those learning losses from the fourth quarter and then also mitigate summer slide.”
  • Status of the schools students attend regularly—BCPS, for example, prioritizes inviting students from “turnaround schools” to its summer programs.

Recruit and Support Your Staff

In recent surveys of administrators and educators about summer learning, Curriculum Associates found that administrators are very concerned about getting enough qualified staff for their summer programs—a worry that the districts we interviewed shared.

Determine Your Teacher Criteria

Districts told us that when it came to finding educators for their summer programs, they were looking for individuals who have the following: 

  • Records of great student relationships
  • High energy and a proven ability to motivate and engage reluctant learners
  • A positive growth mindset for themselves and their students

Communicate Your Expectations

Angie Dufner, an educational interventionist at Park City School District (PCSD) in Park City, Utah, explained that she is making it a point to be very clear with summer-school teaching candidates that the PCSD summer program is going to involve hard work. She’d rather educators understand their program is intense and lose candidates than hire someone who isn’t prepared for rigorous teaching. “If you think that fits, fantastic,” said Dufner. “If you don't, I get it, because summer is sometimes a time when you don't want to work that hard.”

Provide Professional Learning (PL) Opportunities

Offering robust PD with your summer programs is a great idea for numerous reasons.

  1. It means you can employ teachers from outside your district who might not know the edtech or methods your district uses.
  2. It’s a big draw for teachers who want to learn new skills or bolster existing knowledge, and it could give you an edge when it comes to recruiting top summer-school talent.
  3. As Core explained, PD can make it possible to “reclaim and elevate’’ teachers with less experience and/or second-career teachers in your district. BCPS puts PD at the center of their summer programming, with the goal of “building the bench” for the district’s turnaround schools in particular.

Have Generous Pay and Benefits

There’s a high demand for summer-school teachers this year, so if you are going to entice excellent educators to your programs, you’ll need competitive pay and benefits. PCSD appeals to educators by recognizing the work they do before and after class. They can pay teachers for an hour of prep time each day.

Be Deliberate about Staff Structure and Supports

Think of how you can structure your summer teams to maximize administrative support. SCS’s summer program teams include zone leaders who oversee several schools/sites. Each site, in turn, has a summer administrator who oversees their site’s teachers. Site administrators are usually aspiring principals who see summer school as an opportunity to build their leadership skills and administrative experience. School principals select the site administrator and, together with the principal, select staff for the summer.

Build Your Structure

Remember, even though you need to plan like you’re planning for the school year, you need to conduct school like it’s summer.

Develop a Schedule

Figure out how many days a week your program will run, then determine the structure of each day. Will every day have the same schedule, or do you need to plan for special events such as field trips or an end-of-summer-school ceremony? How much time will be devoted to academic instruction and how much time to other activities? Will you offer before- and after-school childcare?

Grouping Students and Teachers

Research on summer learning has found that small class sizes and smaller student-to-teacher ratios are important for program effectiveness. For this reason, PCSD will not have any whole class instruction, only small group. HCSD will offer select students 30 minutes of one-on-one tutoring in lieu of traditional summer school.

Make Time for Fun!

You might need to plan your summer program like it’s a school year, but you should also plan like it’s summer—your schedule shouldn’t be hours and hours of straight academic instruction. Most districts we spoke to plan on having academics in the morning and then fun enrichment activities (e.g., jewelry making, basketball, cooking) in the afternoon.

Remove Barriers to Participation

As you develop your summer learning plan, ask your team to think about this question: What could keep our students from regularly making it to summer school?

  • Will transportation be an issue? McClain thinks a lack of transportation has contributed to low student turnout from certain neighborhoods, which is why this year SCS will offer some students rides to and from program sites.
  • Do you serve students whose families might be food insecure? Many districts offer breakfast and lunch as part of their program.
  • Will working families be able to meet drop-off and pick-up times? HCSD sent families a survey to get feedback about their schedules.

Engage Students and Families

In Making Summer Count, researchers state, “Clearly, student behaviors mediate the effectiveness of the program in that students must be present and engaged to benefit.”

Reach Out at the School Level

Across the board, districts said leaders are more likely to get responses from families and students if the initial invitation to attend summer learning comes from an educator the student knows.

Be Prepared to Work for Attendance

Regular attendance is crucial to any summer program’s success. Educators should communicate their attendance expectations to families and students unequivocally before summer school begins. PCSD has found it helpful to award students for great attendance and/or participation throughout their program. Daniel Wells, PCSD’s community education coordinator, said he makes hours of phone calls to families each night if students don’t show up. Some districts have found it helpful to have families sign attendance pledges at the start of the program.

Conclude with a Bang

Ending your program with a big event gives students something to look forward to (and an incentive to meet attendance requirements).

BCPS concluded their summer 2020 program with a virtual award ceremony in which teachers shared success stories and recognized students in various categories. Other districts, including Highland and Shelby County, traditionally have big field trips at the end of their programs.

Monitor, Adjust, and Stay Agile

You’ve got a lot to pack into your summer programs, which means you can’t waste time on things that aren’t working. You and your team members also need to be prepared to tackle unexpected snafus quickly so as little instruction time as possible is affected.

Give Educators Flexibility

Last summer, PCSD tried to do a fixed curriculum, and it ended up “not going well.” This year, they plan on giving teachers specific standards to cover within each grade but will let them build their own curriculum.

Embrace the “Reset”

If something isn’t working (e.g., students don’t find the curriculum challenging, technology fails, etc.), bring your summer team together to discuss whether you need to try a new approach. Don’t hesitate to use different texts in reading instruction if students are bored with the initial selection. If soccer isn’t popular this year, swap in dance or flag football.

Collect Feedback

Of course, you’ll want to survey students, families, and educators at the end of your programs, but if it’s possible to collect feedback throughout, try to do so.