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Making the Case for Transforming Summer School

By: Noah Dougherty on March 9th, 2021

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Making the Case for Transforming Summer School

Teachers  |  Virtual Learning  |  School Leadership

For most of us, summer school was a punishment for not passing a class. Sure, plenty of teachers (including myself) framed it as a second opportunity or a chance for more individual support. But at the end of the day, the hours spent in summer school are hours not spent working, looking after siblings, or just socializing. 

Especially in secondary grades, the primary – if not exclusive – purpose of summer school is credit recovery. Amidst increasing calls not to fail students during a pandemic, an opportunity arises: what could the purpose of summer school be if it wasn’t about credit recovery? This question becomes even more salient as educators consider how to address the time students have lost with teachers and classmates because of COVID closures and challenges with distance learning.

Four ways summer school can be transformed


A Headstart for Relationship-Building

Research on social-emotional learning has highlighted what teachers have always known, that positive and trusting relationships with students are foundational for learning to occur. Summer school is an opportunity to begin relationship building early. This approach has the benefit of fitting more closely with our existing perceptions. Many people see summer school as “lower stakes” and more flexible than the traditional school year. As a result, students and teachers may be more open to using the time to build relationships and establish a community. A possible side effect may even be to reinforce the real truth of social-emotional learning: that it is not something separate but simply good teaching.

Pilot new instructional practices

Teachers often have more time for planning and for professional development during summer school because of the flexible scheduling. Summer school is an opportunity to pilot innovative instructional practices that can help accelerate student learning and embrace a more student-centered approach to learning. The flexibility of summer school allows teachers the time and space to try out new practices; like mastery grading, project-based assessments, and instructional pathways. These student-centered practices are an important component of how educators can better support students and accelerate their learning.

Identify learning strengths and gaps

Many districts are exploring how assessments will help them quickly identify the strengths and growth areas of students in order to accelerate and personalize learning. Summer school is an opportunity to hold as many of those assessments as possible before the school year begins. This has two major benefits: (1) teachers have as much information as possible about the learning needs of their students before school starts and (2) this will minimize disruptions to learning time during the school year. Because scheduling during the summer is more flexible, assessment opportunities can better meet the needs of families and be held in smaller settings. 

Catch up on extracurricular activities

Social distancing requirements and the move to distance learning have pushed extracurricular activities firmly onto the back burner, if not canceled them altogether. Summer school is an opportunity to bring students back together for clubs, athletics, and art and music programs. Extracurricular activities are an important part of a student’s schooling. They provide opportunities for engagement, creativity, and personal growth. Even with social distancing guidelines, schools can provide a wider range of activities simply because the weather allows for more outdoor activities. Whether that’s art classes outdoors, socially distanced cheerleading practice, or baseball games with masks, the summer months are a valuable opportunity to re-engage students.


About Noah Dougherty

Noah Dougherty is an Associate Partner at Education Elements who loves supporting schools to design student-centered learning experiences that are transformative and culturally responsive. He has partnered with districts across the country to work on strategic planning; personalized learning; curriculum adoption; return to school planning; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Before joining Education Elements he worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, instructional coach, and school leader. He began his teaching career in Prince George’s County, Maryland with Teach For America and continued with KIPP DC. He has taught middle school social studies, 8th grade ELA, English 12, AP Literature, high school journalism, and DC History. While at KIPP DC he wrote the middle school social studies curriculum and coached ELA and social studies teachers. Noah also worked for DC Public Schools and LearnZillion on curriculum development initiatives. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.

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