Five Best Practices for Effective Summer School Programs

Mar 27, 2024
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For most educators, students, and parents, the words “summer school” may have negative connotations. But, as the achievement gap becomes more and more widely recognized as a serious issue in education, summer learning is receiving well-deserved attention.

Numerous studies have shown how real the issue of summer learning loss is. Studies by RAND found that, on average, by the end of the summer, students are academically one month behind where they were in the spring. These learning losses affect low-income students to a much greater extent than their affluent counterparts, and while disparity between low-income and affluent students existed long before COVID-19, the achievement gap has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. And these losses accumulate over time, so with each year, low-income students tend to get further and further behind.

However, these same studies have consistently found that high-quality, engaging summer school programs can go a long way in preventing learning loss and can even accelerate student achievement and performance. We’ve put together five best practices to help you develop a school or district program that everyone involved will get excited for:

1. Start with formative assessment

Personalized learning is becoming more of a priority in all classrooms, but it’s especially important in summer school settings where time is in short supply and the participating students have likely struggled in the traditional, group instruction-focused models. To make a personalized approach effective, formative assessment must be the first step. By administering an assessment at the very beginning, or even before the start of your summer program, teachers can get a grasp of where students’ knowledge and skills are and make individualized prescriptions for each student so that their time is maximized.

2. Create small class sizes for big gains

Hand in hand with the need to differentiate instruction is the need to keep summer school class sizes small. Large class sizes are one of the most common barriers to effective personalized instruction; after all, instructors simply don’t have the time or ability to be everywhere at once in their classrooms. Capping your summer school classes at a small size makes significant one-on-one time between instructors and their students feasible. Instructors can get to know their students, understand their knowledge gaps and learning styles, and build relationships that motivate learning.

If the size of your class isn’t within your control, utilizing small groups is an effective backup plan. It isn’t always easy to pull off, but with careful lesson planning, regular shuffling of student grouping, and behavior management to ensure that the rest of your class doesn’t descend into anarchy, you can harness the magic of small-group instruction.

3. Think about electives

Yes, the goal of summer school has traditionally been to simply improve academic skills, but it also offers the opportunity for a much broader and richer spectrum of activities that can engage students in their own interests, as well as improve academic and personal skills. Enrichment and CTE courses, as well as electives in topics like art, technology, and leadership, can be included. Provide opportunities for community service, or for older students, bring in community members to discuss college and career paths. Plan off-site lessons at local museums or parks. Incorporate physical activity to teach students healthy habits. Just because students are in summer school does not mean that they need to be confined to a classroom.

4. Find partners in your community

Never underestimate the power of involving the greater community. A growing number of community partners—outreach groups, businesses, athletic organizations, and others—are seeing the value in engaging with students. Teaming up with organizations such as these provides more opportunities and a real-world element that can help engage learners who may struggle in a traditional classroom environment. Community partnerships are also a great way for districts to stretch tight budgets.

5. Try something new

Summer is a great time to test out things that you have been wanting to try—new technology, new scheduling, new curriculum, a new grading model, etc. Whatever ideas you’ve been considering, summer school programs are a great opportunity for educators to get creative and flesh out innovative new practices. After all, summer is the time for having fun, right?

Want to learn more about how to make the most of your summer program? Check out Edmentum’s Summer Planning & Success Toolkit.

This blog was originally published May 2017 and has been updated.

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