LA GRANGE – District 105 has been trying to make summer school cool for four years, and it’s working.
More than a third of the district’s 1,200 students (not including incoming or outgoing students) participated in its summer learning program this year. It’s the highest number of participants the district has had since officials redesigned the program to fight the “brain drain” that research shows occurs over a long summer break.
Four years ago, the district studied data from a standardized test called Measures of Academic Progress that showed its students were regressing over the summer.
“They were actually scoring lower [after returning in the fall] than their spring scores when they left us,” said Kathryn Heeke, the district’s director of curriculum.
That year, the district developed a website featuring learning games and other assignments that it distributed to parents. The following year, it asked all district parents to sign their students up for one of three summer programs: structured, flexible or independent.
Two-thirds of the 460 students who participated this summer went the structured route and met regularly with one of 32 district teachers or aids, Heeke said. The teachers, who were responsible for about 9 to 10 students each, set times when they’d be available and work with students individually or in small groups.
The district also started opening one of its libraries each day of the week during the summer, and students from any school were encouraged to stop in to check out books.
The result of all the changes? The regression rate of district students has dropped between 11 and 12 percent since 2009, and it’s not just struggling students who are benefiting.
“What the research found was that all kids regress. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the top of your class or you’re struggling,” Heeke said. “In fact, your highest [achieving] kids will sometimes regress more because you tend to regress to the mean.”
The program is not tied to a specific curriculum, so teachers can be creative when coming up with assignments. Barb Hope, a third grade teacher at Ideal Elementary, said one of her students wanted to learn all he could about bridges this summer, so she had him piece together two suspension bridge models using Popsicle sticks.
Another of Hope’s students wrote the first two chapters for her own book.
“I have seen students maintain their interest throughout the summer, which is huge,” Hope said of the program. “If you can make a child interested in reading and math throughout the summer, it makes the transition back to school so much easier.”
Once the year starts, the students who participated in summer learning programs take less time to review previously learned skills and can get ahead, said Hope, who has been a summer teacher for each of the program’s four years.
For students who don’t meet directly with teachers, the district encourages parents to have their children complete 30 minutes of math and 30 minutes of reading each day, with an emphasis on math.
“Reading happens very naturally every day. Math is not as natural,” Heeke said. “You have to really be very conscious to … bring math into the everyday conversation.
Her suggestion? You’re taking a vacation: Map it out and ask your kid how many miles the trip is and how much gas it will take to get there.
For Margo Leardini, enrolling her son Hayden in the structured learning program was a no-brainer.
“I hear a lot of parents that sort of grumble about it, and I honestly don’t understand why, because it’s voluntary and it’s free,” she said. “I’ve noticed a huge difference. My son has a lot of anxiety about school and it’s helped him to go through it and see it’s not so scary.”
Hayden, who is entering third grade, sometimes complained about having to do assignments or go to school, Leardini said. But many assignments are in a game-like format and offer positive feedback, which helped.
“The assignments were so fun that [they] didn’t feel like work,” Leardini said.
Heeke hopes the percentage of students participating in the program will continue to increase as the district re-frames the concept of summer school.
“When we think about the school year now, we think about it very differently,” she said. “Year-round schooling would be an interesting concept. It’s something that lots of school districts look at. It’s not anything that we’re looking at right now – there’s a lot involved with something like that. So this is our way to be as creative as possible to lengthen the school year.”