Growing ‘What Works’: Indianapolis Summer Learning Goes Statewide

Indy Summer Learning Labs added to four communities as state expands effort to combat COVID, summer learning losses.

Students at the Indy Summer Learning Labs have fun in the afternoon last summer after learning English and math all morning. The labs are expanding to four other Indiana communities this summer. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana Summer Learning Labs)

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The Boys and Girls Clubs in the South Bend, Indiana area had to turn away 800 students from its summer learning program last year — even though many of the children who didn’t get a spot were academically two years behind after the pandemic.

That bothered Jacqueline Kronk, CEO of the clubs in St. Joseph County, so she leapt at a chance to add students this summer as part of statewide expansion of a promising Indianapolis effort.

Started in 2021 to help students catch up after the pandemic, the Indy Summer Learning Labs will receive more than $5 million from Indiana to expand into the Gary and South Bend areas, along with more rural Salem and Wabash. The five-week mix of academic work and fun activities for first through ninth graders has grown each year and is credited by the state with giving students strong gains in both math and English. 

The “Expanding What Works” grants let Kronk grow her program from 1,500 students last year to 2,500 in five counties around South Bend. She has also hired more teachers from local schools and upgraded the program’s curriculum.

“We’d be foolish to not address the fact that COVID and the implications of that are still here and rampant amongst our young students…and their ability to learn and thrive,” Kronk said. “We should be really, really scared about that reality and realize that we need to be throwing all but the kitchen sink at this issue.”

The nonprofit The Mind Trust and the United Way of Central Indiana created the Indy Learning Labs in 2021 for 3,000 students at 35 sites around the city, allowing students a chance to catch up on lost school time. The labs also offer field trips and other activities students in more affluent students can afford.

The labs have grown each year and The Mind Trust expects to have up to 5,500 students at 49 sites in the city — schools, churches, youth centers, or nonprofits — this summer. Though there are no income limits, nearly 90 percent of children qualify for free or reduced school lunches, a common measure of low family income, allowing the labs to reach families eight times less likely to enroll in summer programs than affluent ones.

Summer programs like the labs have been a widespread strategy for cities and school districts to catch students up after the pandemic. A Rand Corp. survey in 2023 found more than 70 percent of school districts have added or expanded summer programs since the pandemic, making them the most common use of federal COVID relief dollars.

Results are usually low on math and reading gains, but a new study this week found large gains last year from the Summer Boost program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies in eight cities, including Indianapolis.

Researchers have found the small reading and math improvements in summer programs are often because programs don’t offer enough academic work.

Results from both the Bloomberg study and last summer’s Learning Labs are more promising because the programs offered more academic work — about three hours a day devoted to math and English instruction.

Bloomberg based Boost on the Indy Summer Learning Labs and sponsored the labs last summer. The study did not include any lab programs.

The Bloomberg study found 22 days of summer learning helped students make, on average, three to four weeks of reading gains and about four to five weeks in math gains.

That let students make up 22 percent of COVID losses in reading and 31 percent of math, researchers estimated.

The Learning Labs had previously released data from tests given to students at the start and end of the program. Last year, those tests showed proficiency rates in both math and English increased more than 20 percent during the program.

Organizers credit time spent on learning, hiring teachers from local schools to teach some of the sessions and using a curriculum carefully chosen to align with state learning standards for the gains.

Those results, along with the ability to add more students and upgrade the curriculum were all appealing in South Bend, Kronk said.

“The impact that we saw that it had down in Indianapolis for the last several years and for us to be able to scale and replicate that and bring that to counties that we’re serving up here…that really excited us,” she said.

Indianapolis parent Chavana Oliver said the labs were a huge help last year for her son Leanno, 7, who was about to enter first grade but has issues with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and needed extra help.

“He saw a lot of improvement,” Oliver said. She signed him up again this year, as well as her older son Kaden, 8. “ Now he’s very excited, because it will help even more for the second grade.”

Deborah Hendricks Black, a former teacher who helped the Urban League and others apply for the state grant to bring the labs to Gary, said the test score gains and reports from parents in Indianapolis like Oliver caught her eye. The grants will allow 750 students from high-poverty Gary and surrounding communities including East Chicago to avoid summer learning loss and catch up when behind.

“Now we’ll have a chance to at least affect a small amount of students,” she said. “But we know they will be supported effectively with a proven curriculum that provides gains in a short amount of time and we’re looking forward to that.”

Cassandra Summers-Corp, executive director of the Creating Avenues for Student Transformation (CAST) nonprofit in Salem said her rural area about 100 miles south of Indianapolis has a lack of tutors to help students who have fallen behind. Her organization has offered summer programs focused on reading lessons to about 40 students in surrounding counties the last few years. The new grant will let her add math classes and grow to 75 students, along with increasing from three days a week to five.

“We really wanted a partner to help us to expand,” Summers said. “Even though a lot of COVID learning loss money is sunsetting, we know that the crisis of COVID learning loss is not over.”

Disclosure: The Mind Trust provides financial support to The 74.

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