Fort Worth ISD administrators consider their summer school program the first step in a years-long process to recover learning loss caused by the pandemic. 

“This is going to be a year of recovery,” Superintendent Kent Scribner told parents during a virtual forum about summer school. “We’re going to work very hard and try to make up as much ground as possible. But we may not be able to make it all up in one academic year. It may be a two- or three-year system.”

Education experts say the program, called Summer Launch, could be much more than that. It could be a new model for education to go beyond its traditional boundaries and include other social and emotional services to make children more well rounded.

Robin Jocius, associate professor of literacy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington’s College of Education, views the next few years as a chance to completely rethink education as teachers and administrators race to get students back on track.

“I see opportunity to reenvision how we support the whole child,” Jocius told the Fort Worth Report. “One of the things that Fort Worth is doing is they’re bringing in a lot of community partners, and they’re really trying to engage students in community activities, museums and in informal learning contexts. That’s one of the things that we know is most successful in supporting learning.”

‘Not just a one size fits all’ program

Traditionally, summer school has a stigma of being for children who did not perform well during the academic year and need to go through remediation. Fort Worth ISD partnered with several local organizations, including Read Fort Worth, Camp Fire First Texas and Clayton Youth Enrichment, to break that stereotype and embrace a more camp-like environment for the program.

“It is giving more experiences than just you’re coming to school, and it’s what you think of as a traditional school day,” said Jerry Moore, Fort Worth ISD’s chief academic officer. “It’s experiential, but it’s also founded in the skills we know students need to be successful for the next grade.”

Summer school will be split into two parts. The first half of the day will be about math and literacy instruction, and the second half will be filled with enrichment activities involving science, technology and career and technical skills.The non-traditional learning time will have a focus on reading and math too to reinforce students’ skills.

Organizations, like Read Fort Worth, have worked with Fort Worth ISD to ensure the summer school curriculum aligns with what students are learning during the regular school year.

The goal is to have “a nice continuity between how kids are learning to read during the school day and what that looks like in the summer to prepare them to come back to school in the strongest possible position ready to learn,” Read Fort Worth Executive Director Elizabeth Brands said.

Students pick up books during a Fort Worth ISD book giveaway. (Contributed by Fort Worth ISD)

All Fort Worth ISD students were eligible to attend summer school. Some students will be required to participate. Their performance on State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams and district-approved standardized tests determined mandatory summer school attendance.

Elementary and middle school programs will be in person, while high schoolers could have in-person or virtual instruction.

“Our program is going to be designed to where we can extend your learning. We can give you more learning opportunities. We can push you forward,” Moore said. “We have tools in place that will continue throughout the summer that provide individualized pathways for learning for students that relate back to their math performance. It’s not just a one size fits all for students.”  

Teaching students mental health strategies

Camp Fire First Texas will provide literacy-based activities to Fort Worth ISD students. The organization also places an emphasis on students’ health and wellness by teaching students how to deal with their emotions and interact with other children.

“With COVID and the isolation and feelings of sadness and depression and anxiety a lot of kids are feeling, that’s even more important. We want to make sure they have the skills to deal with all of that so that they come to school to learn,” Camp Fire President and CEO Lauren Richard said. “If you’re coming to school thinking about that — you know, your parents don’t have a job or there’s not enough food to eat or all these things — you need strategies that will help you deal with those things so that you can be ready to learn.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on childrens’ mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found mental health-related emergency department visits between April to October increased 24% for children between 5 and 11 and 31% for kids 12 to 17.

Camp Fire will teach Fort Worth ISD students about how their brain works and how to calm it.

“One of the things that I felt the most hopeful about was the idea that they’re including counselors on site to work with kids and provide support for them because it’s really hard to be an engaged learner if you’ve got all this other stuff you’re trying to deal with,” said Kathryn Pole, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at UT-Arlington’s College of Education.

Kickstarting social-emotional skills

Clayton Youth Enrichment will teach Fort Worth ISD students relationship-building skills, such as how to become a friend, advocate for themselves and navigate and resolve conflict. 

“It’s a curriculum that we bring, that’s been specifically designed for Clayton, and it’s also the chance to be in a setting where it’s not driven by preparing you for academics,” Jason Ray, the organization’s president and CEO, said. “In our camp time, it’s a time to interact with other students and other adults and practice those skills, which we’re blessed to have the latitude to use that time to give the time for the kids to practice and develop those skills.”

Fort Worth ISD students participate in a hands-on activity. (Contributed by Fort Worth ISD)

Social skills are crucial for young students, many of whom haven’t practiced them because they have been learning from home. 

“They need the same kind of kickstart on the social-emotional side as they do on the academic side,” Ray said. “Our hope is by giving them this really positive refresher course on social-emotional learning, it’s going to ease their transition back into the classroom and in the routine of the school year that’ll be coming up before we know it.”

During a Read Fort Worth conversation with Mayor Betsy Price, the Fort Worth ISD superintendent expected all students back in classrooms when school resumes in mid-August. Scribner, other educators and education experts widely agree students learn best when they are physically in school.

Moore, the district’s chief of academics, stressed the importance of preparing students for their eventual return to in-person learning. He described it as a big area of need.

“We’ve got some students that won’t have been in our classrooms in 15 months. There’s going to be a transition about coming back to school, working with your peers again, interacting with the teachers” Moore said.

Going into the fall semester, Fort Worth ISD plans to give parents support through wraparound services to provide them with social and emotional assistance for their students.

‘Increase equitable access’

Beyond learning crucial skills, the pair of UT-Arlington education professors pointed out this year’s summer school program breaks down barriers for economically disadvantaged students. 

Oftentimes, students who come from wealthier families continue their education through informal ways, like traveling and visiting places they learned about in school or by attending expensive summer camps. 

For many Fort Worth ISD students, that just isn’t possible. Most students in the district are economically disadvantaged. Nearly 44% of Fort Worth ISD students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, according to the Texas Education Agency. Eligibility is based on a student’s family income.

“I see opportunity to reenvision how we support the whole child.”

Robin Jocius, associate professor of literacy studies at the University of Texas at Arlington’s College of Education

“We have to increase equitable access to summer resources because the summer is often a time where we see these opportunity gaps grow tremendously,” Jocius said.

Summer school also shortens the time between the academic years. The current school year ends June 18. Five days later summer school begins. The program ends July 22 — three weeks before the 2020-21 school year begins Aug. 16.

That narrowed window means students should not experience the expected 2 ½ months of learning loss typically seen during summer break. That loss is commonly called summer slide.

Longer school years and days could be beneficial in stemming off average learning loss. Fort Worth ISD is considering implementing both in some form in the coming years, Moore said. 

Jocius and Pole agreed more time in the classroom is good for students. However, that shift would mean teachers losing time to develop lessons and catch a breath and require community buy-in to provide childcare options for parents, the professors said.

Learning loss is not a new phenomenon.

“This is something that we face every single year with students over the summer months,” Jocius said. “But I think COVID has actually introduced opportunities for us to provide hopefully lasting changes in how we create community programs.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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