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Minnesota schools struggle to meet demand for summer programs

Jul 30, 2021 05:42AM ● By Editor
Fifth-grade students Maria Navarro-Moreno and Maddie Taylor look for butterfly eggs on milkweed outside Hidden Valley Elementary in Savage as part of a summer learning program.
Photo: Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

By Elizabeth Shockman of Minnesota Public Radio News - July 29, 2021

Maria Navarro-Moreno and Maddie Taylor can tell you just about everything you want to know about the life cycle of a monarch butterfly. 

“I have a [Monarch] egg,” Maria explains, “It can hatch whenever, but there’s a 10 percent chance it might not hatch.” 

“It hatches, and then it becomes a caterpillar, and then it eats and eats and eats,” Maddie said. 

The fifth-grade students have been attending classes at Hidden Valley Elementary in Savage four days a week in July. They’ve spent their time learning to garden, going on field trips, brushing up on their math and reading skills and doing some hands-on science experiments with butterflies near the pond by their school.

“We get to go on field trips, and we get to do some science experiments,” Maria said. “We got to go to Crayola [Experience at Mall of America].” 

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district has seen a surge of students in their summer programs this year — up by about a third since 2019. Jason Sellars, the district’s director of community education, says families were eager to get their kids in a consistent in-person environment after a difficult year of pandemic learning.

children work on an art project
Eight-year-old Jarvon Anunda works in art class with classmates in Savage.  Photo: Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

“One of the biggest reasons they wanted in-person learning is because of the disjointed in-person experience that their students had this most recent year. We want them to have fun. We want them to do school. We want them to build up their stamina for the school year,” Sellars said. “We have about 30 kindergarteners in our system that never attended school because parents kept them out for health and safety reasons. This is their first school experience, and they’re going into first grade.”

It wasn’t easy to put together a summer school program in 2021. Back in January and February when planning started, administrators weren’t sure what sort of funding would be available, what virus spread would look like by summer or what sort of health restrictions they’d have to deal with. 

But Sellars said state and federal COVID funds allowed his district to expand their busing program, incorporate more field trips and hire more teachers, specialists and cultural liaisons. 

Still, health restrictions, last-minute registrations and legislative funding delays meant they weren’t able to accommodate all the students clamoring to get in-person time with teachers this summer. 

“We had six kindergarten classrooms two summers ago. We have nine this summer, and had we had the time at the last minute to be able to add two to three more classrooms and had the time to add staff and add another building, we could have,” Sellars said.  

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district isn’t alone. 

Stillwater Public Schools summer programs saw their summer student numbers swell by more than a third. But Stillwater assistant superintendent Jennifer Cherry said not everyone who wanted to enroll their students got a spot. 

“We had a little bit of a struggle staffing,” Cherry said. “This is the first year ever we had to look outside of our district to hire teachers for our summer school program. Thankfully we were able to hire and fully staff. But I continue to hear that same thing from other districts — that it was hard to find teachers.” 

In Rochester Public Schools over the winter, when many districts were overwhelmed by uncertainty about funding, health restrictions and constantly shifting learning scenarios, some administrators decided to take a leap of faith and expand programming anyway. 

“It sounds crazy. Why did we undertake this major redesign in the middle of a pandemic year when people were worn out and frustrated?” said community education executive director, Amy Eich. “It came down to not missing an opportunity for our — kids plain and simple. We have wanted to do this for a long time, and the federal COVID relief funds with the focus on summer learning for part of those funds was something we could not ignore.” 

Eich’s district doubled their summer programming time from three to six weeks and upped their elementary days from 4 to 6 hours. They went on a hiring spree, adding special education coaches, mental health experts and specialist teachers to their sites. They shrank their classroom sizes to give kids more space to socially distance and more time with teachers. They wrote new curriculum to offer some high school credit recovery classes in person for the first time.

But not every student got the in-person programming they wanted. Fifteen-year-old Ryan Behnken, a sophomore at Mayo High School, had been excited to go to in-person high school classes for the first time this summer, after choosing to do online learning all year. 

“I’m more of a person that has to learn in person so I don’t have a lot of distractions and stuff. Doing online did not help at all,” Behnken said. “Two of my classes I failed by like 10 points or something crazy. I just really struggled with online.”

But when Behnken showed up for her first day of what she thought would be an in-person summer class, teachers handed her a Chromebook and told her she’d be doing her credit recovery online.

“I don’t feel like I’m learning anything. I just feel like someone’s talking to me and not teaching,” Behnken said. 

Even though Behnken’s high school developed a brand new in-person program for six of its high school credit recovery classes this year, there were still 23 other classes they didn’t have the time, resources or staff to develop into an in-person experience. 

Eich said she hoped they’ll be able to convince legislative leaders that this new approach to summer school is worth the investment. 

“Our hope is that we can prove the efficacy of this new model to be able to say, ‘Yes, this is worthy of an investment to make it happen this way,’” Eich said. “The COVID money will last through two summers. After that we’ll need to look at district resources or find supplementary resources. This is our chance to say, ‘Can we show that this new model is effective and worth funding at that level?’” 

Rochester, like many Minnesota districts, is outdoing itself to come up with new ways to meet student needs this summer. But after more than a year of severely disrupted school, there are large numbers of students who are still struggling. Many educators know their work meeting those needs is only just beginning. 

To listen to the audio version of this story and see related reports, follow this link to the MPR News website.

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