School district-led summer programs play a critical role in supporting students academically and providing them with enriching experiences. Drawing on existing research and the perspectives of policymakers and field professionals, this report looks at the policies, practices and resources that go into the planning, development and operation of these programs. Researchers spoke with 92 individuals: district representatives and community partners (representing 38 districts in 30 states); staff from 21st Century Community Learning Center state offices (25 states); and other state-level stakeholders, including state afterschool networks, involved in the design, implementation and funding of district-led summer learning programs.
The authors found:
- Most district summer programs are primarily designed to support academic learning. Other purposes include promoting social and emotional learning; providing a safe environment; offering fun, structured activities; and connecting students to community resources.
- To promote equitable access, most programs are free or affordably priced, and many offer services such as transportation, food, and afternoon care.
- Running a summer program is complex, requiring collaboration among different levels of district leadership and a range of administrative offices (food, transportation, etc.).
- Community partners can offer expertise in youth development, social and emotional learning, outreach to families, and recruitment and provide students with enrichment activities, academic content and mentorship.
- Federal and state funding and policies related to summer learning are generally broad enough to allow districts to independently develop programs to fit local needs.
- Districts blend a variety of federal, state, and local resources to fund programs. Nearly half of districts in the study report using federal Title I funds for their summer programs. Nearly half also report using state funds. About one quarter report using federal 21st Century Community Learning Center funds.
- Staff involved in summer programs have access to professional development, but there are unmet needs in key areas, including social and emotional learning; trauma-informed practices; and diversity, equity and inclusion.
- Districts use a range of strategies to ensure families are aware of their summer programs and are able to enroll, including community meetings, surveys, email, and informal conversations. However, goals for engagement were consistent: districts work to ensure families know about and can gain access to the opportunities available to them and connect with families to support students in getting the most out of the summer learning opportunity.
The report identifies several challenges facing district-led summer programs, including lack of transportation and stable funding; staff turnover and burnout; enrollment requirements and other policies that limit access for the students with the greatest need (e.g., homeless students); language and cultural barriers that stand in the way of family engagement; and issues of fit and communication with community partners.
The authors describe how districts adapted their approach to summer learning in response to COVID-19 and suggest that states could use the influx of federal pandemic relief aid to invest in transportation, staff, and community partnerships for districts’ summer learning programs. They also recommend that districts build on practices—like focusing on social and emotional learning and creatively engaging families and community members—that came to the fore during the pandemic.