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Summer School That Goes Beyond The Basics In Project LIFT Schools

Summer school brings to mind kids hunched over desks in humid classrooms, trying to make up classes they failed.  It’s not the place to be.  But across the country summer school is undergoing some big changes.  It’s not just for kids who can’t make the grade and it’s supposed to be fun. 

Several CMS schools in the Project LIFT zone have begun to offer a summer program that takes this new approach so that the summer slide doesn’t put at-risk kids further behind. 

The PA system at Ashley Park K-8 beeps and crackles on a recent afternoon.  This is the sound kids may least want to hear in the summer.  It’s the sound of summer vacations being interrupted by school. 

But if you look around Ashley Park, it doesn’t really feel like school.  Take Wartika Scott’s Aerospace and Aviation class.    

“They took a glider and then they actually build and design and then they flew it,” explains Scott.    

The class gets a ringing endorsement from the class. 

“You learning, but you’re having fun at the same time,” says fourth-grader Simmie Allen. 

“It was pretty great and a lot of hard work,” agrees classmate Shawn Kinard.    

That’s one of the big goals of the new summer school, according to Gary Huggins with the National Summer Learning Association. 

“It’s really creating an atmosphere that kids want to be a part of.  That’s deepening a commitment to learning and advancing them academically and not just sort of remediation,” says Huggins. 

He says CMS is among 25 of the country’s largest school districts that are trying out these summer programs.  The district has long offered day camps geared to learning, but they come with a fee.  The program offered at Ashley Park and a few other schools on the city’s west side is free and designed to combat the summer learning slide.  It happens to all kids, but studies show it’s particularly noticeable with low-income students. 

As a CMS principal, Denise Watts saw how that played out.  Many of her students spent the summer watching TV at home, forgetting what they learned during the school year.     

“It’s just impossible because you spend the first half of every year re-teaching what they lost, before you can even start on what they need to learn,” says Watts.  “So if you think about over several years with kids who are already behind, they will never catch up.”  

Two years ago she became the head of CMS’s project LIFT zone.  Those are nine struggling school’s on the city’s west side.  Four of those schools went to a year-round calendar.  They start this week.  Those that didn’t, like Ashley Park, now offer a summer program run by a group out of Massachusetts called BELL or Building Educated Learners for Life.  About 800 students are enrolled.  It’s the district’s first real step into offering a new model of summer school on such a large scale.    

The mornings are filled with math and literacy classes.  These classes do feel like school.  Kids sit at desks, there are tests, and nearly all of their instructors are teachers here during the school year. 

“They’re building on to their skills that they may not have grasped during the school year as well as adding on to the skills that they need for this upcoming school year,” says Ashley Park’s Dean of Students Cheryl Laster who manages the school’s program. 

The afternoons are more free-form.  Kids can choose classes like Ms. Scott’s Aerospace and Aviation course, drum line, or aerobics and dance. 

Ashley Park only has room for about a third of its students to attend so most kids are here because their teachers see they could use some extra help. 

Project LIFT schools offered the six-week program for the first time last summer.  Laster says she could see a difference, especially with the eighth-graders. 

“They seemed to have matured and they seemed to have grown up over the summer,” says Laster.  “I’ve noticed a change in that as well as their academics because most of them did improve grade-wise and we use them as tutors during the academic year.” 

A 2006 study found students participating in the BELL summer program, experienced no summer slide.  In fact, they gained a month of learning by the time school started.   

Summer school like this can be expensive for districts.  The program costs about $1.3 million.  Project LIFT is responsible for roughly two-thirds of that.  BELL covers the rest. 

It cost eighth-grader Damontre Harris nothing, but a summer playing video games.  He thought he’d mind that last year. 

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to come to no summer school, because it’s going to get in the way of my summer,’” remembers Harris. 

But that’s when he thought he knew what summer school was all about.  This year, he signed up right away.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.