A summer program aimed to help prepare kindergarten students for school will be expanded on Billings’ South Side this year.
School District 2 will also offer a new, small-scale summer school program at Riverside Middle School, the first of its kind in several years.
The programs are a recognition of the importance of both summer learning loss and preschool, and echo a familiar mantra from first-year superintendent Greg Upham — that in order to address gaps in learning, the district needs to find ways to extended educational time for students.
A preschool-lite program used at Orchard Elementary the past two summers will expand to Newman and Ponderosa elementary schools, while Riverside will be the lone middle school with a summer program.
It’s no coincidence that the leading edge of the idea is rooted in the South Side. Billings schools are zoned by neighborhood, and Billings’ economic housing segregation means that some have high concentrations of kids from low-income families.
Those students are less likely to arrive in kindergarten prepared, more likely to benefit from preschool, but less likely to have access to it. And summer education matters for all students.
The summer slide, a well-documented period of learning loss during the summer, can hit struggling students especially hard. Kids from low-income families typically experience a dip in reading skills over the summer, while other students improve or hold steady. The math skills of all students usually take a hit.
Ahnna Barnett saw too many students enter her kindergarten classes not only without an academic background, but without the behavioral skill needed to get started learning.
“They have no structure, no background whatsoever,” she said.
For the past two years the Orchard teacher has led the kindergarten jumpstart program, which the expansion is modeled after. The program starts students on some ABCs and 123s, but its larger focus is preparing students socially and behaviorally for school.
Students enter kindergarten with a wide variation in academic, social, and behavioral skills, and their starting point can affect their ability to progress alongside their peers.
Those who come in with some reading skills and make a year’s growth are well positioned to remain on grade-level and advance on a track that keeps possibilities like college in sight. Those who don’t recognize a single letter, even with a year’s growth, are unlikely to catch up.
Orchard principal Dustin Gaugler told school trustees Monday that he’s confident teachers make a year’s growth with most students.
“But it’s not enough,” he said.
The six-week, half-day program will cost about $20,000, most of which will come from each school’s Title 1 money — federal funding earmarked for targeting students from low-income families.
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Upham said that if the district thinks the program is successful, they’d like to expand it farther across the district.
“I think then we would begin to look at regional centers across our entire district,” he said.
Trustee Mike Leo, a frequent critic of nine-month school calendars, asked about possibly expanding the program to first grade.
“It would benefit any grade level,” said Ponderosa principal Clay Herron.
Riverside’s program would encompass grades 6-8, but enroll only about 20 students whose academic skills are behind their peers.
“We know these kids need that extra help,” said Riverside principal Kevin Kirkman. “They need re-teaching, they need extra time. … We want this to be an opportunity for them to learn essentials for math, reading and science.”
However, Kirkman was wary of the perception that summer school can carry for older students.
“It’s not the coolest thing to say you get to come to school during the summer,” he said. “We want it to be fun. We don’t want it to be a punishment.”
The program would run for three weeks in June on four-hour days, capped in the morning and afternoon with gym time or other more relaxed activities.
Balancing academic rigor, which research has shown to be essential for summer programs to be successful, alongside play-based activities can be challenging for summer programs.
Upham endorsed Riverside’s model.
“This is a very tight, focused approach,” he said.
Neither the elementary nor middle school program will have busing. Student busing in Montana is paid for by an automatic levy on local taxpayers, but it doesn’t include summer transportation. Several legislative proposals to include summer busing have failed.
While there’s no official accounting of summer school programs in Montana, offerings appear to be slim, especially in rural areas, and classes often target credit recovery or remediation. Montana provides no direct funding for summer school, and districts often find it hard to justify summer programs while budgeting for the nine-month school year.
SD2 had eyed expanded summer programs in the past, but never allocated the funding, which likely would have needed to be stripped from other programs.