Elizabeth Emerson is a junior in the Katahdin Program at Windham High School.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

After a year of hybrid learning, Elizabeth Emerson was excited to learn her school would be offering a three-week summer program to catch students up on credits.

“I’m super stoked about it, honestly,” said Emerson, a high school junior in the Katahdin Program, an alternative education program in Windham-based Regional School Unit 14. “I never thought I would say that, but I’m trying to keep myself challenged and keep pushing. It’s been a rough year for everybody.”

The 17-year-old is among thousands of Maine students who are likely to enroll in summer school programs this year as districts ramp up their offerings in response to COVID-19.

The Maine Department of Education doesn’t track enrollment in summer school, and summer programming isn’t required outside of extended school year services for some special education students. However, several districts are planning on offering more robust summer programs to offset the disruptions of this year and give students a boost going into the fall.

The most recent federal coronavirus relief package, the American Rescue Plan, stipulates that districts must use at least 20 percent of the funds they’re awarded to address learning loss and many districts are directing federal funds to help pay for summer school.

“We’ve been fortunate to see our kids on more of a full-time schedule,” said Mandy Cyr, director of instruction in the Biddeford School Department, which welcomed many students back four or five days per week in-person at the end of this school year. “That being said, we know over the summer it’s very typical for students to have some learning regression and we’re also aware that when they come back to school in September, we’ll have to take the skills they have and catch them up academically if they are behind.”

Biddeford is expanding its JumpStart summer school program, which normally serves students in pre-K through fourth grade, to include fifth grade and is adding a new middle school pilot program called Summer Boost to offer targeted support to students who haven’t met benchmarks. They expect to enroll about 110 students between the two programs, which starts the Monday after July Fourth.

In Gorham, which doesn’t normally offer summer programming outside of special education services and credit recovery for high school students, the district has purchased licenses for an online math and reading program that will be available for all K-8 families.

They’re also offering a three-week remote program for about 80 K-8 students to extend one-on-one support for those who have been receiving help in math and reading. Another six-week program will offer in-person academic programming during the morning for about 90 students, followed by afternoons in the Gorham rec program.

Overall, Superintendent Heather Perry said she is feeling good about where students are ending the school year, though the district has seen some dip in math performance. “It’s not a significant piece, but what we don’t want is for students who might already struggle in that area, we don’t want to see those gaps grow,” she said. “So that’s really what the summer program is all about.”

In Portland, the district will have three types of summer school offerings: school-based programs, providing academic experiences and standards recovery; district programs, including opportunities for special education and English language learner students; and community partner programs that include day camps focused on music, art and sports.

In the summer of 2019, prior to the pandemic, Portland served 1,300 students in summer programs. This year it’s planning for 2,900 – more than 40 percent of the district’s 6,500 students.

“I think for students and educators it’s been an incredibly challenging year,” said Melea Nalli, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in Portland Public Schools. “At the same time, we’ve seen amazing resilience and strength and learning that’s happened. Students are in different places. I think our teachers have done an amazing job trying to prioritize the essential standards and focus instruction where we need it.”

Teachers have been working all year to provide targeted support, and summer school will be another opportunity to help students who may have fallen behind in academic achievement. More than 300 staff members in Portland will be teaching and coordinating programs, which start as early as June 17 and run throughout the summer.

Nalli said staffing was one of the biggest anticipated barriers to expanding summer programs, and while there have been a few hard-to-staff areas, the district overall has been pleased to receive more interest than expected. “I think it’s a testament to our educators and how committed they are,” Nalli said. “They see and believe in the need and have stepped up.”

Many schools are using federal relief funds to pay for summer classes. Officials in Portland are expecting to spend $2.5 million in federal funds on summer programming, which has allowed them to expand the number of schools and grade levels involved as well as the scope of what’s offered.

“(In the past) we were more academically focused – enhancing reading and math skills,” said Gail Cressey, director of intervention strategy and Title I coordinator for Portland schools. “Now we have much more opportunity and variety to support students around social and emotional needs, not just within the academic-based programs but by offering different opportunities this summer than we ever have before.”

Across districts summer school this year is a mix of academic catch-up, as well as regaining social and emotional ground that’s been lost and reintroducing students to in-person opportunities.

Craig Haims is director of the Katahdin Program at Windham High School. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

At the Katahdin Program in Windham, Director Craig Haims expects nine of the program’s 23 students to participate in a three-week program that will consist of academic content Monday through Wednesday and adventures and field trips on Thursdays. The program doesn’t offer summer classes every year, but is doing so this year because a number of students are deficient in credits and not on track to graduate.

Other schools in RSU 14 are also offering new summer school programs this year, and the district is expecting to enroll between 250 and 300 students over the summer.

“Everybody was impacted by COVID in a big way,” Haims said. “It was a monumental year for all schools and programs and our students were no exception.”

Some students and educators benefited from smaller class sizes during hybrid learning, but Haims said remote days were also hard for students, who were cut off from teachers and the motivation of being in-person in a class. Emerson, the junior in the Katahdin Program, said hybrid learning was difficult and she normally loves being in school. “I felt like the two days per week (of in-person learning) took away from what I’m supposed to get,” she said.

Although she’s not behind on credits, Emerson said she was allowed to sign up for summer school and get credit as long as she does the work. “I’m doing it to kind of boost myself and push myself,” said Emerson, noting the program will also offer her access to the technology she needs to complete an online college course she’s enrolled in.

“The majority of kids I’ve talked to, they’re not super excited about having to go during the summer, but they’re glad the opportunity is being given to them to make up what needs to be done,” she said. “I know the adventures and stuff like that probably motivate them to go a little bit. As long as you do the work and you’re there every day, you will get the credit, so that’s a motivation.”

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