Summer schools welcome students back to campus and rebuild community

·4 min read

Jun. 20—In some ways, summer school this year is like other years. High school students return to retake a class, get ahead on credits or try something new. Parents bring younger students to school so that they're safe and learning — or at the very least, not watching TV.

But this year the stakes of summer school are high — and different. It feels like a chance to begin the process of making up for what students lost during the pandemic and distance learning.

Deanna Clarke, director of extended learning at Bakersfield City School District, said a major goal of the district's summer learning academies this year is to welcome students back into the school community.

"We want to get kids into school and to let kids know that we care about them," she said.

Students have been welcomed with a backpack with books and open libraries. Teachers have social emotional training to assist students after a tough year and a half. There are also behavioral intervention specialists and nurses on every campus as well as psychologists and social workers on hand for the summer session.

At many local schools, summer school programs started last Monday, just a day before California's official reopening on June 15. The state didn't loosen restrictions at school sites, but Clarke said there's been a growing confidence among BCSD parents that the time was right to return.

"Since we started back, people are feeling safe," Clarke said.

Currently 3,341 students are enrolled, and the district has been working to get students off a waitlist. That's down from previous highs of 5,000 or 6,000, but Clarke said that over the last couple of weeks the momentum changed rapidly. In the week before summer school started, Clarke said 500 parents called wanting to enroll last-minute.

"They've missed it, they've missed their teachers," Clarke said.

In the Kern High School District, the main purpose of summer school is credit recovery so students are on track to graduate. That's especially true this year when distance learning set many students off course.

At 20,214 students, enrollment is high, representing about half the district's student body during the regular year. Still, the district hoped the state would announce relaxed social distancing guidelines in classrooms, which would have enabled more students to enroll.

"It's a challenging balancing act getting the students in that we need to have here, and meeting the requirements for K-12 schools with regard to (class) sizes," said Leo Holland, principal of East Bakersfield High School.

But the district also sought to offer arts and other enrichment programs it does not typically offer alongside remediation courses.

Theater is East Bakersfield's forte, which meant that students will be taking a course that will enable them to put on a live production of "Little Shop of Horrors" at the end of summer school in July.

Holland said he's glad the district pushed for enrichment, because it's allowing the students to regain momentum that they lost during COVID. Theater students had just wrapped a production of "Chicago" before the pandemic hit.

Students will have six weeks rather than a semester to put together a production, and face masks will be creatively woven into the production. But students pushed for a live show, especially graduating seniors who wanted one last chance on stage, according to instructor Sarah Shannon. It gave seniors a chance to pass the torch to next year's freshmen and sophomores who have yet to enjoy a performance on stage.

"It's a family for everyone," said student director and rising senior Christopher Juarez.

The mercury was rising Friday afternoon, but students gave their all as choreographer Marvin Ramey led them through a sequence to the musical's title track. The students cheered after finishing their first full run.

"This is letting them show their talents and releasing this built-up energy they've had for a year and a half," said Ramey.

After a year during which some students spent the entire time in distance learning and even those who returned to the classroom spent quite a bit of time on screens, there's an emphasis on hands-on activities. This is especially true at the elementary level.

For its reading program, the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District is using a program called QUEST that is based on of gaming concepts. They will be working in teams and collaborating to make decisions, think critically and problem solve, according to Pam Somes, director of extended learning.

There are a lot more students on PBVUSD's campuses this summer: 4,500 students at 14 schools, compared to four schools in previous years.

Both BCSD and PBVUSD are using the program STEMscopes this summer, which is hands-on and project-based. It was chosen as the antidote to a school year where many students might have been working by themselves.

"The work is really collaborative," said Somes. "We want to get them talking, getting them to interact and knowing their opinion makes a difference."

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