Summer school. The term is often associated with all things remedial, boring, mandatory, punitive, and, in many cases, inequitable. However, summer school options are a seemingly well-intentioned new focus for many state legislatures and school districts looking at expanded learning time as an allowable use of education funds within the COVID-19 relief bills.

Many national education experts, community leaders, funders, and researchers—including McKinsey & Company, The Education Trust, and Northwest Evaluation Association—have all highlighted the impact of COVID-19 on education and the urgent need for our nation to leverage the proven benefits of summer learning and out-of-school time (OST) as an essential strategy in America’s recovery and students’ long-term success.

The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) believes summer is a time for: 

  • Innovation: Summer offers an opportunity for school districts, community partners, municipal leaders, and OST providers to improve school-year teaching and learning by testing new curricula, technology, and instructional strategies before scaling.
  • Inspiration: Learning happens anywhere and anytime, and summertime offers a chance to individualize learning and explore project-based experiences that help students acquire a deeper knowledge of themselves and the world around them.
  • Integration: Summer provides an opportunity to break down systemic and community silos to create a true safety net that equitably supports every learner’s academic and social-emotional needs and well-being. 
  • Impact: Recent research from the 2019 reports, “Shaping Summertime Experiences: Opportunities to Promote Healthy Development and Well-Being for Children and Youth,” funded by The Wallace Foundation and released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and “Investing in Successful Summer Programs: A Review of Evidence Under the Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), from the Rand Corporation, offer conclusive evidence that summer is an opportunity to close academic gaps while promoting healthy development and well-being for all students to thrive. In a systematic review conducted by the Rand Corporation, more than 40 of 43 rigorously evaluated summer programs showed positive impacts on at least one youth outcome, ranging from reading fluency to increased social and emotional skills and GPA.

One of the key recommendations of the NASEM report is “that local governments develop quality management systems to assess existing summer learning experiences and address unmet needs; federal and state agencies look for opportunities to extend school-year funding and resources into the summer months; and philanthropic funders increase their support for intermediary organizations, which serve as ‘central organizing, leadership, fundraising, measurement, and support systems’ for summer programs.”

Before we leap to the critical fall reopening plans this year and beyond, let’s look at the promising opportunities and questions to explore to make summers count in bridging student success in every new school year. Consider how we might:

  • Give every student a joyful summer and accelerate learning
  • Focus on the essential skills and standards students will need to be successful in the coming school year while blending social-​emotional supports and fun 
  • Build a caring, safe culture and sense of community among students, staff, and families
  • Weave together funding and find community partners to serve more students during the COVID-19 era
  • Test new curricula and pilot new technologies and community-building practices for the new school year
  • Creatively use outdoor spaces for learning
  • Build a summer all-star team of diverse teachers to model effective teaching strategies for the year ahead
  • Give voice to teachers and students in shaping the school year

For more than 25 years, the NSLA has led a movement to ensure every child, regardless of background and zip code, learns and thrives every summer. We’ve developed indicators for effective summer learning systems and have helped school districts, along with community-based organizations across the country, harness the power of summer. We offer these guiding principles.

Shape a Shared Vision

Consider a broader vision than traditional summer school—one that engages more students over multiple summers, accelerates rather than remediates learning, and builds on the assets within your community to enhance teaching and learning throughout the year. Set goals for how you’ll use summer 2021 to shape a successful school year ahead. Focus on participation by students who would benefit the most, and design programming (virtual, hybrid, or in-person) around essential standards and skills students need while blending enrichment that is fun, student-driven, and culturally responsive.

With school resources stretched thin, summer is an opportunity to tap into your community as a learning hub and support district learning goals through the arts, sports, STEM, nature, community service learning, and many other pathways with partners ready and willing to support students as local health protocols allow. 

The greater Atlanta community is one example of a community looking to leverage all of its assets and stakeholders. Its leaders conducted a “Summer Landscape Report” and have since formed a Summer Learning Council to shape a measurable action plan to support their shared vision around summer 2021 and beyond. 

Invest in Summer as a Bridge to Supporting Learners and Leaders

Summer learning has proved to be a cost-​effective strategy for boosting achievement and the well-being of students with state and local communities, even in a crisis, creatively blending private, public, and multiple federal funding streams under the ESSA. 

With CARES Act education relief funding, NSLA is seeing many states focus on learning recovery and reopening plans with allocations for more learning time as a strategy. Governor Gavin Newsom in California, for example, this year proposed $4.6 billion for extended learning time. Others have followed, considering summer and after-school programs as part of the learning acceleration efforts.

These additional federal funding examples under the ESSA may be supportive of your summer goals:

  • Improving Basic Programs Operated by Local Educational Agencies (Title I, Part A) 
  • Migrant Education Program (Title I, Part C)
  • Improving Teacher Quality State Grants (Title II, Part A) 
  • Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) State Literacy Discretionary/Competitive Grant (Title II, Part B)
  • Student Support and Academic Enrichment Programs (Title IV, Part A) 
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grants (Title IV, Part B) 
  • Full-Service Community Schools Program Discretionary/Competitive Grant (Title IV, Part F)

Summer also provides an extraordinary opportunity for supporting learners of all ages—including our teachers. Teaching in an academic-focused summer program may provide teachers with opportunities—such as coaching and observations—to receive developmental feedback about instruction and improve in certain classroom practices. 

NSLA’s Excellence in Summer Learning honoree, Generation Teach, leads with a powerful mantra: “You teach future leaders. This summer, lead future teachers.” In this unique model, Generation Teach partners with districts and charter schools to transform summer and provide summer teaching fellowships for undergraduate and high school students. In another example, Teachers in the Parks in Pennsylvania combats the summer slide with fun, interactive programs taught by experienced teachers. Instead of bringing kids into school, they meet them where they may be in the summertime—in parks, libraries, playgrounds, and even pools! Despite being in a virtual “park” last summer, students showed up ready for learning fun with caring teachers.

Foster a Caring Culture of Belonging, Safety, and Quality in Summer Programs

Quality is well-defined in summer programs—whether in-person, hybrid, or virtual, certain elements around high-quality, small-group instruction, physical and emotional safety, and family involvement hold true. With intentionality in meeting learning and social-emotional goals, programs should seek to create a summer culture that is different from the school year and promotes a spirit of community and pride through traditions that bond staff and youth. Program culture that honors student voice and identity is a hallmark of many of the Excellence in Summer Learning honorees recognized by NSLA annually.

This is a defining moment in our country, and there is an important evolution in education taking place. In order to really address student success, we need to expand the conversation in education about the power of summer and out-of-school time, rethink the traditional notion of summer school, and create a shared vision across the community to support the whole child beyond the school bell. There are extraordinary gains to be realized year-round if we do so.

Aaron P. Dworkin is the CEO of the National Summer Learning Association.