Long Island districts are offering new and creative lessons in their summer school programs. Newsday TV's Steve Langford reports.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca; Morgan Campbell and Corey Sipkin

A kindergartner tried to hold a yoga pose without collapsing on his mat. A second-grader poured rice into a yellow balloon to make a stress-relief ball. A 15-year-old made a best friend.

All at summer school.

While students are having fun and taking part in novel ways of learning, educators and experts are viewing this season's learning with more urgency. They see summer programs playing a larger role in closing achievement gaps and bringing students who fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic back on track.

Many Long Island districts have expanded their programs to offer more classes to more grades and added activities to foster social emotional learning.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Summer programs this year are considered with more urgency as educators and experts see they play a larger role in closing achievement gaps and bringing students who fell behind during the pandemic back on track.
  • With the infusion of federal dollars, many Long Island districts have expanded their programs to offer more classes to more grades.
  • Some are shifting away from remediation to be more centered on enrichment, or camp-like.

As part of the American Rescue Plan, the federal COVID-19 stimulus package, Island schools had nearly $28 million earmarked for summer enrichment programs, money they could spend through 2024. 

“We know historically that there's a summer slide for students,” said Nicholas Munyan-Penney, senior policy analyst at Education Reform Now, a national think tank.

That could now be compounded with what some researchers call the COVID slide, or loss of academic ground due to pandemic interruptions. 

“Because of the pandemic, we've also seen a lot of students not engaging in school, either not attending at all or being absent very often,” Munyan-Penney said. “Summer programming is a way to get students excited about learning again.”

Summer program lengths on the Island vary. Many started in early July and will last through late July or mid-August.

Summer stretch: Students in a yoga class at Westbury Middle...

Summer stretch: Students in a yoga class at Westbury Middle School. Credit: Corey Sipkin

Westbury schools' new XPOSURE program began July 5. During the half-day program, elementary and middle schoolers start their day with mindfulness activities before they go on to read, do math and learn about savings account and stocks, Superintendent Tahira A. DuPree Chase said.

$1,428,600 Federal funding for summer programs in the Westbury school district

Some schools are shifting from the remedial nature of a traditional summer school to make it more centered on enrichment, or camp-like, to foster learning.

“We are thinking about, 'How can we simulate a camp experience?' But it's a learning camp,” Uniondale schools Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil said. “It's not like we're just moving away from the term around remediation. We’re reframing what skill support looks like because we want students to be excited about coming to our program."

To re-imagine summer

Since February, Uniondale schools have worked with FHI 360, a global nonprofit, to redesign their summer programs.

“Summer school is kind of relegated as a punishment or as a punitive, remedial space,” said Nancy Gannon, a former middle school principal in Brooklyn and senior adviser for U.S. education at FHI 360. “Evidence shows that it could be much more powerful than that.”

$1,428,600 Federal funding for summer programs in the Uniondale school district​​​​​​​

One change that rose out of the redesign was to increase collaboration with local community partners and vendors.

"Our idea was creating this summer learning camp type of experience," Darrisaw-Akil said. "It's not that we aren't recognizing that some of the students really do need more support. But we're backing into that support through these enrichment activities." 

The district has hired what Darrisaw-Akil called “teaching artists." That includes Nadege Fleurimond, a food entrepreneur from Brooklyn, to talk about entrepreneurship, a topic that can range from the price of brownies to her recently opened restaurant in Brooklyn.

In one session, Fleurimond broke down the concept of a business idea to the cost of a pound of sugar at the local supermarket. She wanted the students, most of whom are 10 or 11 years old, to think about the cost of making a cup of lemonade so they can calculate their profit margins.

Tamalee Young, a librarian at the Uniondale Public Library, shows...

Tamalee Young, a librarian at the Uniondale Public Library, shows students at California Avenue School what monarch butterfly larvae look like. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

The district also has brought in librarians who on a recent morning taught dozens of elementary schoolchildren the migration of monarch butterflies, a topic that was expanded to include human migration.

The district approach may have kept William Villegas Diaz engaged. William, 12, at first felt ambivalent about summer school. His mother had signed him up.

“I wanted to learn and also didn’t want to,” said William, who will be in seventh grade in the fall. “Because it is summer.”

Last summer, William stayed home and went to the pool. This time around, he learned to make cinnamon buns in one class and a keychain using a 3D printer in another. The orange, rectangular keychain had the word “HEY” on it.

“Staying at home is boring,” William said July 13 as he worked on another 3D-printing project at Turtle Hook Middle School in Uniondale. “I like school better. I get a 3D keychain and stuff.”

To meet new friends

Génesis Maldonado’s first day at summer school was tough.

The 15-year-old, who will be a ninth-grader at Hempstead High School, did not speak to anyone and did not want to go back the next day. She only returned because she didn’t want to be home alone — the way she spent last summer after arriving in the U.S. from Honduras.

It was on that second day that she met Jolene Jones, 13. By chance, they sat next to each other among a circle of students. She smiled at Jolene. Jolene smiled back. A friendship was born.

Génesis Maldonado and Jolene Jones at Hempstead High School.

Génesis Maldonado and Jolene Jones at Hempstead High School. Credit: Corey Sipkin

The teens are part of Hempstead schools' GRIT Summer Bridge program that aims to help eighth-graders transition into their first year in high school.

$1,428,600 Federal funding for summer programs in the Hempstead school district

The traditional value of a summer program is reinforced this year as educators have placed more focus on students’ social and emotional needs, experts said.

“We're talking about meeting new friends in the programs [and] keeping students in a rhythm of going into a school building so that when they go back in the fall, there's not that much of a shock,” said Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp. who studied summer learning. “There's a lot of ways these programs can be beneficial.”

The two girls’ friendship has amazed those around them.

“I can see for the next four years, this is going to be a really strong bond where they're going to have each other as a support system,” said Natalia Reyes, the high school’s dean of students who also coordinates the summer programs.

Génesis spoke limited English and Jolene little Spanish. So they communicated through Google Translate and body language. Since they met, they’ve held hands walking the school hallways. Last week, Jolene wrote Génesis’ name on the center of her palm and drew sparkles around it.

Her favorite part of the day was to spend time with her new friend, Génesis said in Spanish through Reyes, who interpreted the interview.

When she’s with her friend, she did not miss home, she said.

For students such as Génesis and Jolene, who will attend high school in a few weeks, summer marks a time of transition.

“In turning points in your life, you remember the first,” said Korin Scarles, a summer programs coordinator at Hempstead High School. “This is their first impression of life at Hempstead High School, and it crosses the boundaries of language, age and background. And it all happened because they came here.”

To have a turning point

For high school students, recovering credits through summer school can make a difference in getting them to graduate on time with their cohort, experts said.

“Oftentimes a kid flunks a class, let's say it's physics. It's a hard class and maybe they were distracted or sick or had moved or their family had taken them out of school for one reason or another,” Augustine said. “Being able to take physics again during the summer and then take a test at the end and pass that test and then be able to graduate has been hugely beneficial for high school kids.”

Selena Juarez is counting on this summer to be the turning point of a tumultuous high school life. It began with her becoming sick with COVID-19 for two months in 2020.

Selena Juarez will soon be a senior at Riverhead High School.

Selena Juarez will soon be a senior at Riverhead High School. Credit: Morgan Campbell

“Things just went downhill,” Juarez, 17, said after a geometry class July 14 at Riverhead High School. “I wasn't able to get up and be on the screen because I was just so sick that I didn't even want to do anything. I had no motivation to do anything at all.”

$875,269 Federal funding for summer programs in the Riverhead school district

The teenager said online instruction was difficult to navigate. So was getting back to school, getting used to not wearing a mask and getting comfortable to be around others. A second bout of COVID-19 kept her at home for weeks last winter.

Her grades suffered.

“School has always been a struggle,” Juarez said. “It's been like a roller coaster.”

Juarez felt, though, that things are looking up. She’s confident about passing the summer class and is excited to graduate next year. She looks forward to becoming independent.

In May 2021, she bought a used Audi A4 convertible for $9,000 with her own money. She worked multiple jobs, including at a coffee shop in the Hamptons last year. She continues to work there this summer after school.

She is still nervous about the coming senior year.

“I just don't want things to go back downhill,” she said.

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