Summer Learning FAQs (with advice from Michigan districts who are doing it well!)
Summer Learning FAQs (with advice from Michigan districts who are doing it well!)
When it comes to summer learning, most school administrators have a lot of questions, such as:
- What’s the big deal with summer learning?
- What types of summer learning programs should I offer in my district?
- What type of students typically take summer courses and what are their reasons for taking them?
- What indicators of success should I look for in a summer learning program?
- What kind of support systems are necessary for students to succeed?
- What are common challenges that schools face when setting up summer learning programs?
- Who pays for summer learning programs?
- How do I inform students and parents about their online summer learning options?
- What advice can you offer me on setting up a summer learning program for my students?
This guide was created with advice given in a recent webinar by educational leaders from two Michigan school districts — Northville Public Schools and Brighton Area Schools — on how they’ve found success with summer learning.
If you’re interested in setting up an online summer learning program specifically, we also encourage you to check out our step-by-step guide on this subject.
What’s the big deal with summer learning?
Summer brain drain isn’t a myth. On average, 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 — from summer camps to educational trips to museums, zoos, etc. to 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.
Keep reading to learn more in, “How to avoid the ‘summer slide’ without giving up your hard-earned break.”
What types of summer learning programs should I offer in my district?
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:
- Traditional face-to-face classes taken over the summer
- Online summer courses
- Kindergarten readiness programs
- Events at the local community center or library
- Practice workbooks
- Reading challenges
- Apps and video games with educational content
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.
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 include:
- A face-to-face kindergarten readiness program
Designed to help students transition into kindergarten the following year
- 4 face-to-face courses in civics, economics, honors geometry, and PE/Health
Typically with 25-30 enrollments each
- Online courses through Michigan Virtual
With over 1,000 enrollments from both Northville students and interested students from surrounding districts
Trust your own expertise
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.”
What type of students typically take summer courses and what are their reasons for taking them?
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,” he explains, “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.”
What indicators of success should I look for in a summer learning program?
Student success rates for summer learning vary based on students’ unique motivations for enrollment.
When interviewed for our webinar, representatives from both Northville and Brighton both consistently have found high pass rates — between 90-95 percent pass — among students who take online courses for 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 Vecchioni. “If the kids are coming back, you’re doing something right.”
What kind of support systems are necessary for students to succeed when taking online summer courses?
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 and Vecchioni were clear to signify how crucial it has been to have dedicated mentors supporting their online summer learners.
Though we can’t 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:
- A steward of the student’s progress
- A caring liaison between student, teacher, and parent, and
- A face-to-face connection, if needed
“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.”
We were fortunate to have Lynette Daig — who is a certified math teacher at Brighton High School and the recipient of our 2016 Mentor of the Year award — join us for our webinar.
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,” she says, “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.
Check out our free guides to online learning to learn more about research-based, best practices for supporting online learners. If you find these resources helpful, considering linking them out to students, parents, mentors, and staff at your school.
What are common challenges that schools face when setting up summer learning 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.”
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 which 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.
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.
Who pays for summer learning programs?
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.”
How do you inform students and parents about their online summer learning options?
“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.”
Every year, Northville Public Schools updates a few different key communications for parents and students:
- Parent Meeting — An annual meeting where parents are invited to ask questions and learn about more how online learning works and what the expectations for learning will be, etc.
- Co-branded pamphlet — A catalog co-created between Northville and Michigan Virtual that overviews courses offered — both online and face-to-face — as well as key contact and registration information.
- Summer school webpage — A webpage that provides all key information relevant to summer school, including FAQs, downloadable versions of pamphlets, and who you should contact if you have questions.
Particularly for online summer learners, she emphasizes, these communication channels are critical for helping students and parents acclimate to the world of online learning and its expectations.
For schools who offer online courses over the summer, we’ve created a summer school communication kit to help them spend less time writing communication materials and more time doing what they do best — helping students! Check it out!
What advice can you offer me on expanding and setting up a summer learning program for my students?
We asked both Dr. Brock and Vecchioni what advice they have for other Michigan schools looking to start a summer learning program or expanding their existing programming.
“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.”
And from Vecchioni?
“The bottom line is about the people you have working for you in this. 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.”
Looking to set up a summer learning program?
If you’re interested in offering students in your district online summer options, we can help you get started with our step-by-step guide to setting up a successful online learning program.
Learn more about our summer offerings by visiting: michiganvirtual.org/summer
Other resources you might find helpful:
- 7 ways taking online summer course benefits your high-achieving students [Blog article]
- How to prevent the “summer slide” without giving up your hard-earned break [Blog article]
- 10 Reasons Students Take Our Online Summer Courses [Infographic]
- 4 Types of Online Courses Your Students Can Take This Summer [Infographic]
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