School is out for summer, but across Jefferson County Public Schools, thousands of students are still learning. Concerned that kids may have fallen behind in reading and math during the pandemic, JCPS dramatically expanded summer programming.
In a classroom at the California Community Center, five-year-old Mia and her new summer camp friends were figuring out how to take a container full of tiny Lego-like pieces and build a robotic car.
“The motor, it takes electricity and it lets it go in here, these little silver things,” Mia explained, pointing to two shiny nodes on the half-built car.
Mia’s camp is run by St. George’s Scholar Institute, where Keishanna Moore is the program director.
“We can’t get anything out of kids until they know they’re going to have some fun with us,” she said.
Adding instructional time through summer programming is one major way JCPS is trying to make up for a year and a half of remote learning, which many students struggled with.
In 2019, before the pandemic, JCPS had about 1,000 students in its six-week summer learning program known as Backpack League. This summer, the camps are serving 6,500 students at 125 sites across the city. Some are run by JCPS in school buildings. Others, like the one at St. George’s, are run by community partners with help from the district.
“For any student who is academically behind, we want to be able to serve them,” JCPS chief academic officer Carmen Coleman said.
She anticipates the district will continue to expand summer learning over the next few years, using federal pandemic relief funds. The district estimates this year’s programming will cost $10 million of the total $578 million JCPS stands to receive in federal aid. Eventually, Coleman said, they hope to see as many as 30,000 students in summer learning. JCPS has about 92,000 students total.
But there are challenges. Already, the district has struggled to target the kids it most wants to serve. JCPS offered first dibs on summer learning slots to 5,000 students who had low participation or got a failing grade last year. But in the end, only 725 of those targeted students actually registered. Spots filled quickly with other kids.
“Sometimes the kids who need it most are hardest to engage,” Coleman said.
Staffing is also a challenge. Coleman said she knows teachers are tired after a difficult year, so JCPS is sweetening the deal for those who work over the summer. For each hour a teacher teaches, they’re also paid for an hour of planning. And the district is being flexible with scheduling, allowing teachers to work virtually any number of weeks and any number of days in a week.
To attract students, the camps are trying to keep programming as hands-on as possible. At St. George’s, students spend the morning in a pretty traditional classroom environment with teachers from JCPS. But the afternoon is all about enrichment activities. While Mia and her friends were building robotic cars, Steven Edwards was teaching another group of elementary school students how to make salsa.
“Who wants to taste a piece of green onion?” he asked a gaggle of kids peeking over the counter in the community center’s kitchen.
“Me!” they shouted.
Upstairs, another group of students were working with local writer Tytianna Wells.
“We made a ‘“Black Lives Matter’” poem!” a small boy named Damiontae said.
“It says ‘Black lives matter, no matter what. We are always kings and queens. We always beautiful,’” he read from his paper.
Wells said she was helping students use poetry, writing and art to talk about what happened in the last year-and-a-half: the pandemic and the protests over the killing of Breonna Taylor. Eventually their work will be bound into a book and published.
“We want to give them a platform to tell their story,” she said.
Down the hall, some middle school students were learning how to DJ from Brandon Washington. The students oohed and ahhed as Breyshia, 12, managed to mix two different songs together, matching the beat.
While the camps are focused on reading and math, those skills are not Coleman’s biggest concern. She thinks students will catch up quickly, if they’re engaged.
“It’s the social emotional parts that we’re really going to have to focus on as much as the academic learning,” she said. “And going from elementary to middle, middle to high.”
Research shows, even outside of a pandemic, kids are vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed, and disengaging from school, during those transitions.
To address the social and emotional learning piece, JCPS is putting an emphasis on mental health. Each camp has a mental health practitioner and a nurse. At St. George’s, JCPS social worker Emily Stocking spent the morning teaching the middle school students how to identify different emotions.
Moore says for her kids at St. George’s, the mental health focus has been really important, and not just because of pandemic-related trauma. Several of the students at this camp have lost older siblings this past year to gun violence.
“I’ve been able to pull kids in the morning just this first week because I could tell they needed conversation,” she said.
Over the next five weeks, Moore is hoping to help students process what they’ve gone through since March 2020, and set them up for success when they return for in-person learning in the fall.