In a Summer of Recovery for Students, Long-Running Programs Thrive While Some Face Teacher Shortages

Students in America Scores Los Angeles, a long-running afterschool and summer program, practice in one-on-one matches. (Linda Jacobson for The 74)

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Last summer, Miguel Aquino was virtually teaching students toe taps, step overs and other soccer moves they could attempt safely in front of their laptops.

This July, the site coordinator with America Scores Los Angeles was back at Palms Elementary School, helping to lead one-on-one matches on the blacktop and reminding participants to keep their heads up as they chase the ball.

He knows the value of the program, which combines the world’s most popular sport with literacy and cultural activities for children whose families can’t afford to play in a competitive league. He used to be one of those students.

“Some of the coaches I had were huge role models,” said Aquino, 28, now earning a degree in child psychology while working as a shift supervisor for In-N-Out, California’s iconic burger chain.

America Scores Los Angeles coaches Erikca Wilson, left, and Miguel Aquino discussed soccer skills with students during a break in the shade. (Linda Jacobson for The 74)

The program has many of the elements that experts look for in a high-quality summer experience — a blend of enrichment and academic support, a focus on relationships and a dedicated staff. Aquino isn’t America Scores L.A.’s only long-time staff member. A Palms Elementary special education assistant has been leading the academic side of the program for almost 20 years. That stability was especially important this year after months of missed in-person learning, said Brodrick Clarke, vice president of programs for the National Summer Learning Association.

“Programs that have long-standing relationships with families and are embedded in communities are thriving,” he said.

But in a year when parents and educators are looking to summer school to fill some of the gaps students have experienced because of the pandemic, some districts have struggled to find enough teachers to meet the demand. Districts are doing their best to hit moving targets around COVID safety, parent demand and the Delta variant, Clarke said. But even with dedicated federal funding for summer learning, newer programs have a “growth curve,” he said.

A survey released July 29 from the Afterschool Alliance showed that more than half of programs have waitlists this summer, and 57 percent of the responding providers said they had concerns about their ability to hire enough staff members.

‘A pivotal year’

That means some students have been shut out of learning recovery efforts this summer.

Bryan Walsh, whose son Leo will be a third grader this fall in the Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, is among the parents who counted on their children participating in a summer program only to have it cancelled due to a lack of teachers.

In April, Walsh received notice that his son, who receives special education services, was automatically eligible for summer school. So he unenrolled Leo from camps offered by the local parks and recreation department, where he had already paid deposits.

But in mid-May, another email from the district stated that Leo’s program, which targeted students with special needs, had been cancelled. District spokesman Andrew Robinson said the district offered incentives— $1,000 for teachers and $500 for assistants — but still wasn’t able to recruit enough teachers.In the meantime, other camps had filled up and Walsh scrambled to find open slots. (He found space in cooking and musical theater camps, but said, “these aren’t academically oriented.”)

Eight-year-old Leo Walsh missed out on academic support summer, but attended parks and recreation camps. (Bryan Walsh)

After a year in which Leo never had more than two shortened days of in-person learning a week, Walsh said he can’t imagine his son hasn’t fallen behind. But for a child who “couldn’t get out of the car fast enough” when schools reopened in March, he said was more concerned about him missing the “social-emotional interactions that are part and parcel of an 8-year-old’s existence in such a pivotal year.”

Robinson said 850 teachers and staff are still serving more than 4,600 students this summer and that the district will make “necessary and informed decisions as next summer approaches to further strengthen our program.”

‘Take out the friction’

Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, understands why districts have experienced challenges.

“Teachers are so exhausted, and they deserve to be,” he said. Districts have faced the opposite problem as well — parents registered their children, but then didn’t show up. The good news, he said, is that states and districts have three more summers to use the $30 billion set aside in the American Rescue Plan for summer and afterschool programs.

“We don’t need to try and make up for everything in six weeks,” he said.

Even so, there’s a sense of urgency about this summer. Recent data from nonprofit assessment provider NWEA shows students, on average, made much less progress in the 2020-21 school year than their peers did before the pandemic. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education and Dworkin’s association have launched efforts to support states and districts in ramping up summer programs.

Dworkin said there are ways to make summer learning enticing for both teachers and students.

Setting up under a shady tree is one way.

That’s what Matthew Hathaway, a fourth-grade teacher at Owatin Creek Elementary School in Reading, Pennsylvania, has been doing since 2004. He began offering six students some extra help over the summer from his parents’ back porch, combining math and reading lessons with science activities in a nearby park.

Kristen McBride, who teaches in the Exeter Township School District, near Reading Pennsylvania, works with Teachers in the Parks during the summer. (Teachers in the Parks)

Other teachers asked if they could join him with their students, and prior to the pandemic, his “passion project” had grown to include 120 teachers from 12 schools serving 1,500 students. While his nonprofit is called Teachers in the Parks, the off-site locations include libraries and YMCAs. This year, with help from federal relief funds, the district has added breakfast, lunch and field trips.

Hathaway agreed with Dworkin that teachers especially needed time to recuperate this year. That’s why his part-time model, outside of the classroom, is attractive to teachers, he said. “Kids don’t want to be there all day either.”

Michele Stratton signed up her 9-year-old son Keegan for the program this year so he could get used to socializing with peers again and get some extra help on reading.

“It’s just a different atmosphere when you’re at a park with your friends, rather than sitting on the couch being forced to read by mom,” she said. She recently dropped by to see her son’s small group using different units of measurement to estimate the length of a slide. “In the classroom, you’re limited. Outside, the world is just open to these kids.”

Keegan Stratton, right, and his summer school teacher Jessie Marburger, who teaches fourth grade at Lorane Elementary in the Exeter district during the school year. (Michele Stratton)

During the school year, some nonprofits revamped their programs to create pods so students — especially those whose parents were essential workers — could have a safe place for remote learning. In San Francisco, the same community-based organizations that provided those “hubs” are now helping to meet the demand for summer learning, despite many obstacles those efforts faced during the school year.

A recent report on the hubs described the political tensions between the school district, the city, the teachers union and community organizations that complicated the push to give the most vulnerable students a place to learn while schools were closed. The fact that non-union staff at the hubs provided in-person services to students was one point of contention for union supporters. “Finding ways around the union, in their view, amounted to carrying water for anti-union politicians,” the report said.

But now, new relationships between principals and afterschool providers have “transformed the conversation” about how they can work together, said Stacey Wang, CEO of the San Francisco Education Fund, which funded the report.

The partnerships have continued, with the school district providing about 10,000 slots for Summer Together and the organizations that ran the hubs serving another 15,000 students.

Another challenge for districts — especially this year — is ensuring students who need support the most are the ones signing up for programs. Technology can help.

“The funding is there, but you have to take out the friction for districts,” said Rod Hsiao, who launched InPlay, a nonprofit that uses text alerts in multiple language to inform parents about free summer and afterschool opportunities and then simplifies the registration process. The program ensured “that our highest priority students were effectively recruited during our challenging pandemic year,” said Julie McCalmont, coordinator of expanded learning for the Oakland Unified School District.

InPlay, a nonprofit, works with school districts to target registration for summer and afterschool programs to students with the greatest needs. (InPlay)

But it’s what takes place when students arrive at those programs that Clarke, with the National Summer Learning Program, was evaluating when he recently visited Palms Elementary to see America Scores L.A. — one of six finalists for a national Excellence in Summer Learning award. The honor recognizes providers that reach underserved students and make extra efforts to involve parents.

“I was blown away,” Clarke said. He was impressed by how active the students were in drills, despite wearing masks in the heat, and how they pitched in to gather equipment and hand out water and snacks.

But he was more taken with what was happening inside the classroom, where teaching assistant and history aficionado Oscar Gonzalez, posed “masterful” open-ended questions to students about what they think the White House looks like, why we shoot off fireworks on the 4th of July and why George Washington became the first president instead of a king.

Oscar Gonzalez, a special education teaching assistant at Palms Elementary who leads instruction for America Scores L.A., asked Levi Acosta-Avila about his drawing of the White House. (Linda Jacobson for The 74)

As students began sketching and writing about their interpretations of the White House, Gonzalez gavea rising first-grader some extra help with letters and counting to 20. L.A. ‘s program, Clarke said, demonstrates that establishing connections between staff and students are essential before focusing on content.

“These are things I train practitioners to do all the time,” he said. He got the sense the soccer program’s staff members knew intuitively how to engage the students because they’ve known them for years. “It felt very authentic.”

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