As Tim McKinney led his students through a version of “The Tortoise and the Hare” in July, he paused during reading to make sure his students were understanding what they read — that the tortoise's take-no-breaks approach paid off.
McKinney has led Laurel’s elementary summer school program for about 15 years, using an approach to help kids avoid a period of learning loss known as the summer slide during their break between school years.
“We had so many kids who, when the school year got finished, were struggling a bit with reading and math,” McKinney said.
Those kids are the ones the summer slide hits hardest, according to a robust body of research. And for summer school to help them, it needs to focus on academics.
Research also emphasizes the importance of students getting on grade level early in school. If they fall behind, they’re likely never to catch up.
Laurel has adopted a short-term, high-intensity program that aims to get students the most bang for the school district’s buck. Montana provides no dedicated funding for summer school programs, so the district uses federal money that’s part of the overall school year budget. When schools spend money on summer school, it comes out of funding they could use during the school year.
Laurel’s program has always been relatively small-scale, and it’s evolved through the years. It started with two teachers and students attending for half days. It’s cycled through focusing on reading and math; currently it works on both.
Students’ school days have gotten shorter; McKinney found that students struggled to stay focused even with two-hour periods.
Now, the day is broken into three one-hour segments in the morning. Students show up, buckle down for an hour, and are then free to escape back onto the hot blacktop outside Graff Elementary School. Another group comes in for the next hour.
With three teachers, that means six sections of reading work and three sections of math. In total, 30 students entering grades one through four attend Monday through Thursday for six weeks.
That model means cramming a lot into a little.
Getting a seat
Teacher Rachel Mayes led fourth-graders through a warm-up exercise Monday, reading through a single sentence: “She selected a comfortable seat.”
It can be a bit of a tongue twister for young students, and learning to speak smoothly helps them break out of reading it in halting word-by-word patterns. Enunciation helps them grasp the correct sounds for the correct letter. Mayes paused to check in with students making sure they knew definitions for “selected” and “comfortable,” and that they could identify the synonyms.
It’s a deceptively large amount of work packed into a small package, which is emblematic of Laurel’s program.
Students are grouped by reading or math level, and teachers work with three or four students at once.
“It makes it easier to differentiate your instruction, for sure,” Mayes said. “Everyone stays busy, but I’m available to help the kids as well.”
Students use the regular school curriculum, picking up about where they left off during the school year. They read silently and out loud, in groups and individually, and teachers check with questions about comprehension.
When McKinney's students finished up reading work, they drilled with addition flashcards for the final minutes of the day.
Kids are identified for summer school through the district’s NWEA tests, a formative assessment that helps teachers zero in on what students are or aren’t learning. At least some each year who are invited to the program don’t participate.
The district doesn’t offer transportation; kids depend on their parents to get them to Graff. And for kids who do enroll, the pull of attendance — competing with job schedules and summer trips — can seem less important than during the school year.
“We actually lose quite a few kids who could benefit but they just can’t get here,” McKinney said.
A 2017 bill in Montana’s Legislature would have addressed summer transportation costs. Its first version required that some costs for busing kids for academic summer school be reimbursed by the state, to the tune of about $38,000 per year statewide. The majority of statewide costs, $185,000, would fall to local taxpayers.
It’s unclear how many schools have academic summer school programs that target usual subject areas. The fiscal note attached to the 2017 bill said that 24 schools had summer school programs in 2016, and that about half of those were driver's education. Billings offers a high school credit recovery program and an elementary program through its Indian Education Program, and Lockwood offers a targeted elementary program.
At least one program was cut this year. Shelby’s program was funded by a grant that expired this year, as reported by the Shelby Promoter. The Office of Public Instruction received a renewal of the grant, but Shelby wasn’t selected in a competitive application process.
That’s part of why Laurel uses a steady funding source.
“The problem with grants is you lose the grant, you lose the funding,” said superintendent Linda Filpula.
The district also offers a targeted middle school program with 18 students this year similar to the elementary program, and a high school credit recovery program with 41 students: One teacher teaches an algebra class, while another teacher oversees students using the Montana Digital Academy, the state’s online course system, to take other subjects.
Laurel doesn’t formally track students who were in summer school, and McKinney doesn’t expect the elementary program to turn students who struggle into shining stars.
“Only 24 days for an hour a day, we’re not going to make huge growth,” he said.
But through the years, he said that anecdotal evidence has shown that students can maintain their reading or math level from the previous year and maybe make small growth.
“A lot of the times the teachers and principals are reporting they picked up right where they left off last year,” he said.