“While last year was the most difficult year we’ve probably had as educators, this upcoming year is the most important year,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in an opening statement during the U.S. Department of Education’s final Summer Learning & Enrichment Collaborative Virtual Session last month.
Earlier conversations in the seven-part series focused on such topics as forming state-level coalitions, using evidence to inform summer programs, tapping federal funds to promote equity through summer enrichment opportunities. This last session, however, addressed perhaps the country’s most important stakeholders: students.
“We know students have a voice, and they have a lot to say. We have to make sure we’re designed to listen,” Cardona said.
Cardona kicked off the convening in conversation with a panel of students from around the country, who discussed what they’d gained from their various summer programs.
“We had different things for everybody, and I really enjoyed how inclusive and how much of a family my summer program is,” said Noah Shaw of his experience at the Miller Boys and Girls Club in Murray, Utah.
Mkayla Rowell, a freshman at Cleveland School of Architecture and Design at the John Hay Campus who participated in the Cleveland Metro School District Summer Learning Experience as a teacher, said the aspect she liked most about the program was being able to help kids who are younger than she is.
“I really enjoyed just connecting with a younger generation and teaching them things that would’ve helped me when I was their age growing up in the city,” she said.
The students and young educators also offered their advice to education leaders for how to reimagine, redesign and rebuild engaging learning and enrichment opportunities throughout the year.
“Because most of us are transitioning from a school year that was mainly virtual, it’s going to be difficult for students to go back to in-person school,” said Kwynsky Miguel, a Lehigh University freshman, who worked over the summer at a program he attended in the past, the Aim High Summer Program in San Francisco. “I recommend teachers be very patient with their students rather than rushing them, because everyone will have a different pace going back into school. I really think being patient will help your students see that you want them to succeed and you really care about their mental well-being.”
In fact, a common theme throughout the conversation was the importance of creating a safe space, not just physically but mentally as well.
“I think the best advice I can give is just to be persistent with students,” Noah Shaw said. “Because I know some students have stuff going on at home, and that makes them want to give up and be antisocial, and their grades can fail. A great thing is to be persistent in making sure they’re okay...make sure you stick with them, never give up.”
Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also participated in the meetings that followed the roundtable with the youth leaders to provide updates on guidance and resources for a healthy and safe return to school. Their recommendations for schools included promoting vaccines to those who are eligible, wearing masks indoors, maintaining three feet of distance between others, washing hands, improving ventilation systems and staying home when sick.
“Transitioning in times of physical distancing, masks and extra stress is extra hard,” said Lara Robinson, a behavioral scientist with the Child Development Studies Team at the National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “Teachers, parents and programs can help children by planning the transition, making strong connections and establishing new routines. With the right support, children can adjust to their new program, make new friends, learn new things and strive.”
Attendees of the virtual meeting also had the opportunity to join tabletop discussions. One of them, Engaging Educators, Families, Students in Planning Summer and the Return to School, examined innovations employed by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and district partners for a “whole child, whole community” recovery from the pandemic.
Representatives from the district showed how they developed a vision for post-pandemic learning that includes competency-based education, anytime/anywhere and whole human learning, along with personalized learner pathways. This summer, Cleveland had the opportunity to implement some of these principles during their Summer Learning Experience. Teachers submitted creative ideas for projects to implement during two separate four-week summer sessions, which more than 8,000 students participated in.
“We saw our kids do amazing work,” said Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union. “Our educators came away invigorated with the different things they had done; our students were excited to share what they learned. And now the task for us is to build upon what we have been doing over the summer and start bringing this to scale during the course of the normal school year with a larger number of our students and educators.”
Schools in Cleveland will return to in-person instruction in the fall, with a new remote school option. The district is working diligently to create an experience that aimed at making students want to be in school. Educators and administrators are implementing a more inclusive dress code and offering expanded enrichment and extracurricular activities such as band, choir, fitness and pottery classes, along with the supports to make them accessible for students.
In addition, this fall, on October 28, the 22nd annual Lights On Afterschool will take place. In a typical year, more than 8,000 afterschool programs around the country hold events to showcase their programs. According to Tiyana Glenn, a project associate at the Afterschool Alliance, this event is a chance for afterschool programs to celebrate and showcase exactly what they do everyday, as well as make their case to their community, to parents, to policymakers and to the media that afterschool programs are essential for students and their families.
Kwynsky Miguel, the teacher-assistant at Aim High Summer Program, made the case for summer and out of school time programs and how they can both help students and adults adapt to new situations that might come up in the school year.
“I knew this was a safe space for me to be who I am as well as to learn from others,” she said. “The whole experience of meeting new people and learning about their story was such a surreal moment that I really appreciate Aim High for—for showing me that it’s okay to be new to a whole new environment as well as knowing when it’s right to let yourself be comfortable with new people.”
In his roundtable with the students, Cardona also stressed that schools and afterschool programs can help provide a much-needed sense of community for kids this fall.
“Schools, school communities, and good summer programs are like second families,” he said. “There’s a sense of community there that, I think, sometimes we overlook. We don’t talk about that as educators as much. Schools are communities for our students."