A short film, created by award-winning documentarians Universe Creative, describes the evolution from "summer school" to "summer learning." It shows how committed leaders, teachers, and parents in Woodward and Akron are blending academics and enrichment to provide young people with engaging and productive experiences where they can thrive.
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Narrator: For years, conventional wisdom tied the origin of summer vacation to the agrarian calendar. Children, so the myth went, needed summers off to help farm crops. In reality, most crops were planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, and summer vacation emerged as city families who could left town to beat the heat.
This led to a new myth: that summer looks the same for all kids. In fact, kids from low-income families, who often have fewer learning opportunities, lose ground academically compared to their wealthier peers.
Fortunately, research is clear. High-quality summer programs can improve academics, boost attendance, and raise graduation rates. Communities like those in Oklahoma and Ohio are showing that summer learning can be productive and fun. By combining academics and enrichment, they're writing a new narrative, one that makes summer a time for growth for all young people.
Carla Chapman: Akron Public Schools is 62 square miles, give or take, and about 21,000 students. In 2014, we started to see more students of color. We started to increase in the number of languages our students spoke. And then, most significant for me, was the change in income. We saw a greater number of students who are experiencing poverty. That change made us think more about what we needed to do over and above the classroom. Summer feels like unclaimed space. I think that lends itself to more creative use of time.
Marcie Ebright: Our summer school in Akron has this enrichment and academic piece, that it's not all academics and it's not all enrichment. When students have found something that they like or have an interest in, whether it's chess or robotics or gardening, they involve themselves in more programming at school, too.
Post-pandemic, we have a growing number of students who are chronically absent. Getting kids back in the routine of coming to something, feeling like they're part of something, that's important too.
Carla Chapman: This type of high quality summer programming takes an incredible amount of planning. Even now, as we're in the middle of our summer programming, I am sure we're paying attention to the lessons we're learning and using that feedback to think about what needs to occur next year. You can't get at the highest quality summer programming without being intentional about the resources that will be allocated.
Carla Chapman (speaking to other educators): The way you engage with that school must be different.
Marcie Ebright: When I was going to school, students who had to go to summer school were there because they failed a class, they were being held back, they had done something wrong. In Akron Public Schools, we don't call it summer school. We've switched the name to Choose your Adventure: the Summer Experiences. It's taking the summer school aspect away from it, that negative connotation. This is about your choice in it and pick something that makes sense for you.
Jae'sean Esters: In a normal academic classroom, I feel kind of bland. But in this environment, it makes you want to do better and want to actually learn things. If you actually learn things during the summer, when you come back to school, you're still in a groove of things, so everything just starts clicking for you way easier than it was before.
Carla Chapman: When you are doing this work right, you're engaging those who need it the most in ways that we may not be able to do during the traditional classroom setting.
Bana Bogdahn: Woodward Public Schools is very special to me. I grew up here, going to school as a student. I was a teacher here. I was a principal. This is just the place that I call home. This is home to me.
We want to have a high-quality summer program because we've seen what the programs are doing for our kids. Our kids are excited, and that's what we are striving for.
Kyle Reynolds: At the core, we have to found everything that we do on academic standards. But we're going to approach that academic standard in a way that gets kids up, gets them engaged keeps them moving around the room.
Bana Bogdahn: Having our community and our parents be involved in the planning and designing of our programs has been vital. It's very important to give our students voice and choice. What things do you want to learn about and then we take that information and see what resources we have to meet those needs. That just makes them feel a part of the team, of what a summer program is about.
Bana Bogdahn (speaking to other educators): We like to show students too that there's other things outside of Woodward.
Kyle Reynolds: We don't say summer school. We say summer learning program, we say Boomer ExStream, we talk about the fun things that we're going to do. We talk about hands-on learning. We talk about those things that we think our students and our parents will find engaging, and I think we have really done great work in terms of redefining what summer learning means
Bana Bogdahn: We don't have a lot of resources where we're at in rural Oklahoma. So our community partnership with our career technology center has been a great success.
Don Gaines: Every Tuesday. the Woodward students load up on a bus and they come over to High Plains and they get to experience a couple hours of the programs that we offered. Anything from marketing to construction to welding to service careers.
It teaches them how to pay attention, how to use their hands, how to do different things that you're not always accustomed to doing in a classroom setting.
Kyle Reynolds: A school is the lifeblood of a community, the very heartbeat of the community . So I think people want to see students succeed. It's been heartwarming to see the success of our summer learning programs. To give that opportunity to our students and our families that otherwise would not have had them. Our students and families need to know that they have a voice. They need to know that they're important. That they are why we exist.
Narrator: Communities like Woodward and Akron are helping us reimagine summer as a time of learning and growth by grounding us in key practices. When these strategies are in place, summer programming not only has the potential to accelerate learning, it can also engage, enrich, and advance students in ways that resonate long after summer break comes to an end. In that way, maybe summer's agrarian roots aren't so far from the mark. It is a chance after all to plant seeds that will grow long after summer has passed.