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With robots, science kits, wilderness, redesigned summer school is acquiring buzz in Minneapolis

Forget everything you think you know about summer school. MPS students are enrolling themselves in record numbers — and happily.

From indoor math to outdoor wilderness activity, MPS' new offerings have students engaged: “We have kids who talk their friends into coming.”
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins

With its deadly dull remedial drills and endless study-hall flavor, summer school is essentially punishment for a lackluster performance during the regular year, right?

Wrong. Forget everything you think you know about it.

At a time when Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is struggling to figure out how to lengthen the school year for its most needy kids, summer school is quietly acquiring something of a buzz. Students are enrolling themselves in record numbers — and happily.

On a recent muggy Monday, a group of teens was holed up in a classroom on the third floor of South High School waiting for their teacher to come take a look at robots they’d designed using Lego Mindstorms software.

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“Academics?” quipped one, a young man with a blue-and-white faux-hawk and a bodacious supply of moxie. “I come here for the people, for my friends.”

Bottom line: He’s there

The whole story is a little more complicated. Like the other 7,000 students attending one of MPS’ summer programs, he had to qualify and was probably invited by one of the adults in his life.

And at first he might have been more interested in the free Go To bus pass that comes with enrollment in MPS’ relatively new middle-school to high-school transition program, called Fast Track. But the bottom line is he’s there.

“Before Fast Track, getting ninth-graders to come to summer school and stay was impossible,” said MPS’ Director of Extended Learning, Jan Braaten. “Now they all come and stay.”

Three years ago the district launched an ambitious overhaul of its summer offerings with the goal of creating more — and better — “seat time” for at-risk students. A growing body of research shows that longer school days and years are crucial to positioning struggling kids for success.

At the same time, other studies have found low-income students risk losing up to two months of math and as much as three months’ gains in reading during the summer. By ninth grade, in fact, two-thirds of the gap in literacy between affluent and impoverished students can be traced to summer. 

‘Time on task’ paying off

By contrast, the handful of Twin Cities schools getting terrific academic results within challenged populations virtually all enjoy school days and years that average 40 percent more “time on task.”  

Summer school clearly has always meant added hours, but it was a snore, with 16 four-hour days devoted entirely to reading and math. Kids didn’t want to go. If a program site signed up 200 kids and 100 showed up, it was considered a success.

Contrast that with the need. The Minnesota Department of Education, which reimburses districts for summer school, has spelled out 13 qualifying factors for students who need the extra time.

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English-language learners are eligible, as are homeless and highly mobile kids, students who are significantly below grade level in reading and math, and so on.

MPS serves its own students and those attending charter schools within the districts boundaries. City residents who attend school elsewhere are served by the districts that operate their schools.

All told, 21,000 students — two-thirds of the entire student body — qualify for services in MPS. Of the 16,000 who are in grades K-8, 13,578 are children of color.

Five years ago the district began a wholesale redesign, which rolled out three years ago. To work, Braaten said, they knew it had to be different from regular school and it had to include fun.

Activities go far beyond math and reading

There’s plenty of academic support, but the lineup of activities sounds a lot more like the activity-filled summers enjoyed by middle- and upper-class children, who are far less likely to lose ground over the break.

Today, summer school consists of 23 six-hour days and offerings that extend far beyond reading and math. There’s art and music and lots of opportunities to be outdoors.

“It’s not the way it used to be,” said Braaten. “The kids who come love it.” 

Fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders go out on local rivers with Wilderness Inquiry, for example, while eighth-graders spend five nights at Camp St. Croix.

Among other curricula the district contracted for Seeds of Science from the University of California-Berkeley, for instance. Every grade level gets a couple of large science kits that include lots of opportunities for scientific writing.

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Partners like Bakken Museum

A long list of community partners comes into the schools; the Bakken Museum works with three grades. All classes are taught by licensed teachers. (MPS teachers have first dibs on the jobs, but the district usually ends up hiring a small number of external candidates.)

Aimed at incoming ninth-graders, Fast Track is a good example of summer school’s gap-closing potential. This year 2,100 qualifying eighth-graders were invited and an eye-popping 531 enrolled. 

Bringing them all together allows Program Facilitator Elizabeth Fortke and the rest of the staff to offer a wider variety of programming, including things like guitar, ceramics and theater. South was chosen because it is the easiest facility for kids from all parts of the city to get to on public buses.

The academics were chosen strategically. Nationwide, 90 percent of dropouts occur before, during or after the freshman year of high school, according to Fortke. Fast Track aims to head that off in part by giving students an extra term, in essence.

A leap in expectations

For many, high school presents a quantum leap forward in terms of expectations. If students know what a GPA is, they may not understand its importance or the potential impact of their permanent record.

“It’s a chance to get them thinking about how high school does mean something,” said Fortke. “And to start talking about college and work-force readiness.”

It’s also a no-harm, no-foul opportunity to try more rigorous coursework. Failing grades do not go on student’s record, but passing Fast Track grades do earn high-school credit. 

Geography is the most failed ninth-grade class, for instance. Fast Track students who take it and don’t do well have another chance in the fall. Also new: physics, engineering and physical sciences.

More rigorous state math standards instituted three years ago mean students now must take algebra in the eighth grade, not the ninth like before. Those who didn’t master it in middle school are taught in a different, project-based style over the summer.

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Is it working? District leaders are in the process of designing a system for measuring summer school’s impact on student success. In addition to traditional outcomes like graduation and proficiency rates, they’re hoping to measure things like participants’ attitudes about school.  

Anecdotally, summer school leaders see signs of success. And of course there’s the buzz.

“We have a much higher enrollment than when we started, and kids feel more prepared,” said Fortke. “We have kids who talk their friends into coming.”

And they’re hoping for more buzz.