Summer is synonymous with freedom, with no school and hot days filled with sand castles, bike rides and water slides. But that freedom comes at a cost, with many students experiencing a 'summer slide,' a loss of skills and knowledge learned during the school year.

The Waukesha School District's summer programs aim to incorporate elements of students' summer freedom and expression with learning tools to propel them forward into the following school year. The district offers four elementary school programs, a middle school program and a high school program.


While the programs at each school vary slightly, they each focus on readiness, remediation and enrichment. Students, on average, lose skills over the summer months, particularly in math and reading. According to the Wallace Foundation, an education think tank, students start the fall school year a month behind where they ended in spring, meaning teachers often spend much of the first month of school reteaching skills students have learned, but forgotten.

Summer learning loss is disproportionate and cumulative, with low-income students experiencing greater losses on average, especially in reading, where their high-income peers often have gains, which researchers credit to access to reading materials and affordability of summer programs. Research from the Wallace Foundation shows that over time, the periods of differential learning rates between low and high-income students contribute to the achievement gap in reading.

The Waukesha School District is working to combat that gap within the district by offering programs at a variety of locations and offering all of the summer school courses without a fee this year.

'They are free of charge to in-district students,' school and assessment liaison Amy Riebel said. 'We offer summer school, especially at the elementary level, at a variety of locations so that students throughout the district have access.'

The district also has a free meals program at most of the summer school sites — Summit View being the exception — that benefits low-income students, who often lose access to healthy meals over the summer. Six out of every seven students who receive free- and reduced-price lunches lose access to them when school lets out, according to the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA).

Enrichment in learning

All of the district's programs offer courses designed to build upon students' math and reading skills as well as offering enrichment courses that encourage students to explore a new subject or skill that typically goes beyond traditional coursework.

'Enrichment courses certainly expose students to things they wouldn't have access to during the school year, and the readiness classes avoid the summer slide,' Riebel said.

The elementary schools, like the STEM Academy, offer a variety of enrichment courses that 'encourage students to grow as innovators, collaborators and creators,' Carly Solberg, STEM's summer school principal, said.

These include courses like robotics, coding, stop motion animation and a class called Project Runway, which is based off the show and teaches kids to design and sew. Blair Elementary offers similar courses like dancing and cooking that are taught in Spanish, as well as courses in planting fruits and vegetables while learning about local gardening companies. The students in Blair's cartoon and character design class had the opportunity to meet artist Mitch Mortimer, who has worked for Highlights Magazine and Kohl's.

'We work to include any and all students to make sure that they are successful and have fun while at summer school,' Blair summer school principal Jennifer Balzer said.

The high school program, while focused more on intervention courses than the elementary schools, offers students the chance to make up missed credits or remediate skills while also offering students the opportunity to accelerate by taking courses over the summer, freeing up space in their school-year schedule. The high school offers all core academic classes and an open art studio for students to drop in and explore their creativity.

'We are also finding that by focusing on a learning target that was a challenge for a student and spending more time on that target that students are able to have those 'aha' moments and begin to more deeply understand the concepts,' Jill Davis, summer school principal at Waukesha South High School, said.

Losses and gains

Students who attend summer programs, whether they are remedial or enrichment programs, have better educational outcomes than their peers who don't attend these programs. The Wallace Foundation reported that all types of learning programs, whether they are mandatory or voluntary, have positive effects on student achievement. They can mitigate those summer learning losses and can lead to achievement gains, which can persist for at least two years after engagement in the program.

And according to the NSLA the reading and math losses for students who don't participate in summer programs add up. By fifth grade, summer learning loss can leave students, especially low-income students who tend to have greater losses, almost two to three years behind their peers.

Another challenge facing the district is educating parents on the opportunities that are offered through these programs, CFO and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Darren Clark said.

The districts six programs are all well attended, with enrollment ranging from 250 to 348 at the elementary schools and about 650 at the high school. Enrollment is one of the key's to a summer program's success.

'Summer school revenue is linked to regular school-year funding,' Clark said. 'The difference is we are required to count the minutes students attend in summer and then equate those minutes to a full-time school-year student.'

The district's funding has been frozen for many years according to Clark, but many districts allocate money for the programs based off enrollment, and the more money a program has, the better the courses and the outcomes are for students. The district is working on increasing enrollment and participation among students and parents.

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