How to Re-Engage Students Through Summer School

By Brian Soika

May 27, 2021

A K-12 student, perhaps attending summer school, smiles as she sits in class listening to a group discussion

After a tumultuous year for K-12 students, some school districts see summer school as a key opportunity to address pandemic-related disruption. 

The gap between official school years, declining COVID-19 cases and a significant influx of funds from the federal government have paved the way for schools to re-engage students. 

The stakes may be especially high for schools that intend to welcome students back in the fall for a full-time, in-person schedule, and want them to feel safe and supported.

All of this begs the question, how should schools maximize the use of summer programming this year? And importantly, will students and teachers want to participate? 

Here are some recommendations.

Increase Communication With Families

While the majority of schools have reopened to some extent, many families remain reluctant to send their children back. School hesitancy could mean apathy for summer sessions.

“Summer school sounds like a great intervention after a disrupted year, but recent survey data suggests parents aren’t all that interested in enrolling their kids in it,” says Morgan Polikoff, Associate Professor of Education at USC Rossier. 

Citing forthcoming survey results from USC Dornsife’s Understanding America Study, Polikoff notes that when asked what they would do if offered summer school, only a small percentage of parents said they would take advantage of it. 

“If schools want parents to enroll their children—especially those most in need—they will have to do some convincing,” he continues. Increasing communication with families through targeted messaging and individual outreach may be necessary. 

Incentivize Teachers to Participate

Despite available resources, school districts in California (home to over six million of the nation’s K-12 students) are struggling to recruit teachers for their expanded summer programs. The reason is simple: After a stressful year, teachers are exhausted and need a break. 

In some states, districts are offering increased pay, bonuses or compensation for training. (To offset teacher shortages and supplement programs, some schools are expanding partnerships with community organizations.) 

Providing incentives for teachers may help ensure that schools meet staffing requirements at a time of critical need. 

Be Strategic About Learning Loss

Many students experienced learning loss during the pandemic (students of color in particular fell behind). This loss should be addressed, but research from RAND suggests that academic gains made by students in summer school disappear over time.

Offering a traditional curriculum in summer may not solve the problem. On the other hand, high-concentration tutoring, in which students meet with tutors several times per week, has proven to be effective. As a supplement to class time, students can receive individualized support to help them meet grade-level benchmarks.

Offer Expanded Enrichment Programs

Given the large-scale trauma of the pandemic, students need to feel supported before they’re ready to learn. Providing counseling and acknowledging the events of the past year in summer school is important. 

Additionally, expanding non-academic offerings can allow schools to reinforce a sense of community that may have been lost. Art, music and athletic programs give students a chance to express themselves and collaborate with each other, and may lessen the stress of returning to school full time.

Reward Attendance 

The RAND study found that attendance in summer school played a significant role in determining academic success. Schools that created positive and welcoming environments for students saw higher levels of attendance, as did schools that provided incentives such as ice cream parties, gift cards for parents and field trips.