Typically, during the summer, it’s important for kids to have less structure than usual, so they can relax and recharge. This year, in the face of a pandemic, the needs of our students may be a little different. They’ll need routines & structured learning opportunities in a way they didn’t in years past.
Furthermore, parents are experiencing a lot of uncertainty regarding their existing summer plans, including face-to-face summer camps, programs, and sports. Our online summer programs provide safe alternatives that allow students to keep learning and potentially even earn school credit.
As a result, many Michigan schools are exploring online summer learning options as a way to offer students opportunities to earn grade-based credits and provide additional means for learning continuity.
Even in average years, it is predicted that students lose about one month’s worth of learning over the summer. In math and reading, these predictions are even more drastic, with an estimated two months of learning loss in some studies.
This atrophy wastes valuable time in school at the beginning of the next Fall when students have to relearn much of what was lost over the summer. Some estimates suggest that teachers spend up to six weeks each Fall re-teaching old material.
The worst part? Research shows that the summer slide has its greatest impact on students of low socioeconomic status, whose parents are not able to provide the same summer learning opportunities as wealthier parents. Though we’re currently in an unusual situation, in normal years, this might include summer camps, educational trips to museums and zoos, or the purchase of books and other school supplies.
In fact, some even claim that summer learning explains up to two-thirds of the income-based achievement gap.
Together, these statistics ought to inspire us to act.
When it comes to summer learning, most school administrators would love to provide families in their districts with summer learning options, but there are many logistical challenges involved with the creation of a sustainable summer school model (e.g., budgeting and staffing).
There are a few distinct benefits to setting up an online summer learning program. In particular, this path allows you to:
If you’re considering setting up an online summer school program in your school or district, this guide will help you think through the process to determine what will be required and how it will benefit your students and school community.
Woven throughout this guide are examples and quotations from school leaders at Northville Public Schools and Brighton Area Schools — who shared tips for how they’ve found success with online summer learning in a webinar we hosted.
Types of summer learning programs
For many, “summer school” brings to mind a slew of preconceived notions and misconceptions. In popular media, for example, summer school is often presented in a punitive light, something students are forced to complete as a form of remedial education.
But in reality — at least in the way many of our partner schools implement summer learning programs — this couldn’t be further from the truth. The umbrella concept of summer learning has evolved far beyond credit recovery and has come to include everything from:
Part of the beauty in summer learning lies in its flexibility. You can pick and choose the options you’re able to offer that fit your staffing capacity, budget, and the needs of your students at different grade levels.
A local example
Take Northville Public Schools as an example.
Over the past several years, they’ve taken great strides to grow the quantity and quality of summer learning options they offer to local students. A few of the options they offer (at least during normal circumstances) include:
Types of students who benefit from summer learning
Historically, summer learning has been associated with credit recovery. This makes sense since students who fail courses during the academic school year need to make them up, and summer break provides them with ample opportunity to do so.
But as research and awareness on the “summer slide” grows, many have begun thinking about summer break differently, reimagining it as an opportunity for flexible and continued growth rather than a vacation from learning itself.
Increasingly, we have found students participating in summer learning as a means of credit acceleration rather than credit recovery. In our webinar, both Northville and Brighton express witnessing a massive growth in the number of students taking online summer courses for credit acceleration.
“We’re seeing more of our advanced students taking summer courses, and we’ve had an increase in early graduates who are getting into college earlier. We’ve gotten to the point where the right kids are taking the right courses,” says Henry Vecchioni, principal of Brighton High School. “The number one reason for students to take credit ahead has always been to open up more room in their schedules and create flexibility, since there are so many requirements now. It really has allowed them to take the courses that they want at the next level.”
Keep reading to learn more in, “7 reasons why your high-achieving students deserve online summer learning options.”
Selecting programs for your district
When it comes to your district, you know what’s best for your students. While popular subjects may have enough demand to justify a face-to-face summer section, the strict scheduling of this model can be difficult for some families’ summer schedules, particularly if their students have travel plans, extracurricular camps, or will be working over the summer.
On the other hand, some students may be too young or simply not ready for the kind of self-directed learning that the online environment necessitates and benefit from having onsite options.
“I think that face-to-face is really important for some students who just might not be ready for online,” says Dr. Sandra Brock, director of instructional programs and services at Northville. “That being said, we have a variety of different families here. The online model really allows them to travel during the summer and be flexible and self-paced. For students who are recovering credits and students who are really trying to accelerate.”
Involve key stakeholders from the beginning
Before getting too far in planning your online summer learning program, make sure to involve key stakeholders, such as school counselors, administrative staff, and/or community education offices.
Why? First off, it’s important that they are aware of the summer learning options available to your students.
Secondly, if you involve them early on in the process, they may provide you with valuable feedback and help you solidify and optimize key processes!
“Talk to your stakeholders first,” says Dr. Brock of Northville. “See what the needs are for summer education. It’s really important that courses are offered that the students want to take, and this differs from district to district. Gauge what the needs are for students in your area, and then make sure that planning and logistics are very clear. People are a little bit less connected during the summer, so the more that you can be very organized and clear with your communication the better.
Three Models for Online Summer Learning
While there are many different ways you can run an effective summer learning program, the remainder of this guide will focus on our area of expertise: online summer learning. Every year, we work with schools across the state of Michigan to offer their students online summer courses, and each school does it a little bit differently.
Here are the most common models for online summer programs we see schools using:
Model #1 — Parent- or student-led approach
Some of the schools we work with choose to take parent- or student-led approach to offering online summer learning programs. What this means is they allow students to earn credit for taking online summer courses, but provide few school-sanctioned supports (e.g., a mentor, lab space, or proctored exam). In this model, parents and students are the primary responsible units for ensuring student success.
Model #2 — School-sponsored, minimal supports provided
Other schools take a more active role by encouraging students to take online courses over the summer and providing students with some supports to help them succeed. Often times, the schools using this model will actively promote summer learning options to students through school counselors or schoolwide communications. A mentor may be paid a stipend to work remotely to check in with parents and hold students accountable for completing their coursework, but a lab space is typically not provided for students to work.
Model #3 — School-sponsored, highly supportive
The model that often yields the highest student outcomes is a school-sponsored online learning program with high levels of student support. In this model, the school pays a mentor or several mentors (depending on program size) to run a summer lab space where students have the option to come work on their online coursework. This mentor serves an active role in holding students accountable and also provides a safe, positive learning environment with stable internet access.
To fund these student supports, schools using this model typically ask parents to pay for summer courses and raise the price of each course to cover the cost of paying mentors and keeping a lab space open during the summer.
NOTE: Given that having dedicated face-to-face lab space may not be an option this summer, it’s even more important to ensure you invest in highly supportive mentors to facilitate student success. This can be an effective option when mentors are trained, highly communicative, and work diligently to keep students accountable for their summer work.
Which model is most conducive to student success?
You can find student success in any of these models, but generally, we see the highest and most consistent student outcomes in schools that use Model #3. Why? Because we know from research that online learners perform best when they receive the appropriate supports.
Before continuing the rest of the steps in this guide, you may want to start thinking about which model will work best for your school.
When it comes to online learning, students need just as much support as their face-to-face peers, if not more since they are learning the same content in an unfamiliar learning environment.
Students are far more likely to succeed in their online courses when provided with a high degree of support.
Here are a few key pillars of support you might consider providing to students in your online summer learning program:
Under the traditional summer school model, students return to their classrooms and are instructed by a teacher in a manner that’s familiar to them.
When it comes to online learning, however, this support system looks a little bit different.
When reflecting upon their high student success rates for online learners, both Dr. Brock from Northville and Mr. Vecchioni from Brighton were clear to signify how crucial it has been to have dedicated mentors supporting their online summer learners.
Though we cannot speak for all online learning providers, our courses at Michigan Virtual include a highly qualified, Michigan-certified teacher who is an expert in their subject matter. Because of this, the work of content instruction, providing feedback, and grading student work does not fall squarely on the mentor’s shoulders.
Rather, the mentor provides a unique but critical support for the online learner by serving as:
“The way that we implement our program,” explains Dr. Brock, “the kids have an onsite Northville high school teacher — we call them teacher-mentors — who are available all summer at one of our schools in the computer lab. Therefore, they have a highly qualified online teacher AND a Northville High School teacher who is supporting them if they need it. I think this definitely helps with our success rates.”
Lynette Daig — who is a certified math teacher at Brighton High School and the recipient of our 2016 Mentor of the Year award — shared her insights with us on what role mentors play in an online summer learning program.
When it comes to best practices for supporting online learners over the summer, she says:
“I try to start off the summer with a good, strong start. I give students a very detailed email outline and informational flyer about everything they need to know for the summer. I check their scores and results, and if I see that kids are struggling, I’ll send them screenshots and say, ‘This is the area you need to work on.’ You have to keep a close eye on the students, to monitor them, and keep them and their parents posted about where they are and what they need to do to reach their final goal.”
The truth is that — for online learners — a diligent mentor can have a big impact on student success.
“Sometimes, online communication sans a face-to-face conversation can be challenging” says Dr. Brock. “Our mentors are really good at communicating with students, but now we’ve been CC-ing the parents, just so everyone’s on the same page.”
For both schools, dedicating the time and resources necessary to implement these supports has been reflected in their high student success rates.
“The bottom line is about the people you have working for you in this,” said Mr. Vecchioni. “Summer learning programs are only as good as the people overseeing it. I think we’re lucky in Brighton to have Lynette — and I think Sandra is lucky with the staff that she has in Northville. If you’re going to start a summer learning program, invest in that staff member. Don’t come up short.”
Dedicated lab space
Though perhaps not a feasible option this year, during normal years we generally recommend that schools set aside lab space for students to come work on their online coursework over the summer.
Having a computer lab open during the summer provides students a positive learning environment. This is particularly important if students have a distracting home environment, trouble with time management, or an unstable internet connection.
Typically, mentors make themselves available during lab time to support online learners. Some schools keep lab space open every day during typical school hours. Others set aside one or two days per week for students to come work on their coursework with their mentor.
Given that having dedicated face-to-face lab space may not be an option this summer, it’s even more important to ensure you invest in highly supportive mentors to facilitate student success.
Proctored final exam
Some schools with online summer learning programs choose to have each student’s final exam proctored to ensure the validity of exam results.
Proctoring the final exams of online learners adds an extra layer of security to ensure all students have fully mastered the content they studied in their online summer course before earning credit for these courses.
Challenges with face-to-face programs
When it comes to traditional, face-to-face programming, both Northville and Brighton express that it’s difficult for many students to work class times into their busy schedules.
“We have too many students who cannot follow a traditional schedule,” says Vecchioni, “which is why we have been really embracing the online model.”
Challenges with online summer programs
With online learning, a different set of challenges arise.
For some students, the temptation to procrastinate is strong.
At Northville, — where students are required to come take their final exam proctored by a mentor — school computer labs become busy spaces in August, right before the school year starts.
This is another reason that mentors play such an important role in keeping students on track throughout the summer, so they are not rushing to complete at the end of the term.
“Academic honesty can be an issue, and we do have to follow our Board Policy,” says Dr. Brock. “We’re very clear about our expectations up front. . . But we also have students come to the school and take their final onsite, which helps with that academic integrity and honesty piece.”
In our online courses, we take academic honesty very seriously, and our Michigan-certified online teachers are trained to use tools that detect plagiarism to help mitigate any potential issues as well. The online teacher, mentor, student, and parent work as a team to make sure every student is supported and thriving.
Costs vs. benefits
Despite the challenges, however, both schools are clear in echoing that the pros outweigh the cons.
At the end of the summer, it’s worth it to have students who are able to make room in their schedule for AP courses or dual enrollment, recover credits, and move forward toward their goals.
Students and parents in their districts express immense gratitude for having these opportunities.
Policies & Logistics
If you’re considering setting up an online summer learning program at your school, you may still have some logistical questions.
Below we overview some different processes you will want to solidify as you establish an online summer learning program, including enrolling students, sharing grades, finances, replacing grades, and indicators of success.
Enrolling students & sharing grades
Before communicating learning options to students and parents, make sure you’ve created a tried-and-true registration and credit submission process that will work well for all key stakeholders.
You’ll want to make sure that it’s perfectly clear how students and parents should enroll in their online summer courses AND how they will receive credit for completed coursework.
Questions to consider:
Though pay models for summer learning vary from district to district, both Northville and Brighton structure their programs so that parents are responsible for course costs.
This cost is critical for providing the support systems that students need to succeed. For both of these programs, the cost of courses is used to pay mentors a stipend and keep a lab space open during the summer.
To ensure equitable access, however, both Northville and Brighton offer scholarship programs for students whose families cannot afford the cost of summer learning.
“We have a process to support every student who asks for financial assistance,” says Dr. Brock. “We try to make sure everyone has access to summer programming that wants it.”
Especially when it comes to credit recovery, students and parents often have questions about whether or not the grade received in their summer online course will replace the grade they received when taking the course in a previous semester or school year.
To prevent students and parents from being frustrated if they are unable to replace their grade, it is best to develop a policy on grade replacement and communicate this policy clearly to parents, students, school counselors, and other key stakeholders upfront.
Indicators of success
We asked both Northville and Brighton what indicators of success they looked for when evaluating their summer learning programs year after year.
They shared that student success rates for summer learning vary based on students’ unique motivations for enrollment.
Both Northville and Brighton both consistently have found high pass rates — between 90-95 percent pass — among students who take online courses for purposes of credit acceleration.
This number, however, is typically more variable among credit recovery populations, due to the complexities of each student’s unique situation.
That being said, both schools emphasized another important variable of success:
“The best PR for this is the students themselves,” says Mr. Vecchioni. “If the kids are coming back, you’re doing something right.”
Parent Support & Communication
One major aspect of running a summer learning program, whether face-to-face or online, is communication with parents.
It’s important that parents are informed about what options are available to their students, how they should register, what their role will be, and how to keep track of their student’s progress.
Particularly for online summer learners, communication is key for helping students and parents understand and acclimate to the world of online learning and its unique expectations.
There are many communication channels you can use to accomplish this goal:
Here are a few key communication methods we’ve seen work well for school districts with successful summer learning programs:
Summer school webpage
One school that has done a great job communicating summer learning options to students is Northville Public Schools with their summer programs webpage.
This webpage provides all key information relevant to their summer school program, including FAQs, downloadable versions of pamphlets, and who you should contact if you have questions.
“Upfront communication with parents is really pivotal to our program.” says Dr. Brock from Northville. “Having everything posted — especially online since we’re in such a digital era — saves us from a lot of email and parent phone calls. We really try to have everything — including the pamphlet, the FAQs, the contact info — all in one spot. I probably copy-and-paste that link 300 times between now and June 16th.”
One strategy that we have found to be particularly effective is hosting a summer learning open house for parents and students. This open house doesn’t have to be anything extensive, but it can be incredibly helpful to set aside a one-hour informational session and Q&A for students and parents interested in online summer learning.
A few helpful topics you might cover during this open house include:
If you’re unsure about the answers to some of these questions, you can find many tips, tricks, and best practices in our free guides to online learning.
While it’s important to inform parents about your summer school options upfront, it’s also important to ensure that there are ongoing communications with parents about student progress throughout the summer.
We have found that student pass rates significantly improve when parents receive regular updates from a mentor on their student’s progress.
Having a third party involved in this process helps keep students more accountable and on track to complete their coursework on time, rather than rushing to finish the bulk of their work in the last week of the semester.
Talk to your mentor(s) ahead of time to make sure they have a process in place for communicating with parents and students about student progress!
While perhaps not exhaustive, we hope this guide has helped you start thinking of ways to set up an effective online summer learning program in your district or improve your existing program.
If you’re curious to learn how other schools have gone about creating highly successful summer learning programs for their students, check out this webinar recording where we talk to representatives at Brighton and Northville schools about what they’ve found effective in their programs.
Interested in exploring what it might look like to set up an online summer program powered by Michigan Virtual?
Fill out the form on this page and one of our representatives will get in touch with you!