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Educators have a phrase for the way summer school has historically worked: "drill-and-kill."
Administrators at Boston Public Schools say they're still partly stuck in that model: Some students who didn't master material during the year are still caught up with five weeks of rote learning in stifling classrooms.
It's not exactly appealing, especially when compared to the creative enrichment programs available in the summer for students from wealthy families.
But city officials are trying to fix that, by re-envisioning summer school as something that high-need students won't want to skip.
Starting this summer, the city will engage more than 2,000 K-8 students — and their teachers — in programs that combine summer learning with a wide array of enrichment opportunities, from science camp to sailing.
The initiative is built on a recent finding that regular attendance at summer programs pays dividends throughout the school year, especially for students who need the most help.
BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang says summer is the perfect season to expose BPS students to creative, project-based learning.
"When you go to classrooms where young people are working on projects, it's powerful," Chang says. "They're producing things that change their lives and affect the community. And summer is a great time to be able to do this sort of learning."
District officials say they know that the traditional approach to summer school isn't popular. They routinely enroll more students than teachers can handle, confident that at least a third of them won't show up.
But that's not a strike against the idea of summer school. A new report from the Rand Corporation suggests summer learning is invaluable, if done right. It doesn't just stave off the so-called "summer slide" in grades and skills; it can equip students — especially low-income and low-achieving students — to do better on tests mid-year.
The Rand report found that the biggest benefits reach only the students who attend regularly — so programs have to be designed so that people actually want to go.
Toward that end, the city has reallocated close to $1.5 million to fund a new summer learning program called "The Fifth Quarter of Learning." Another $700,000 in funding comes from matching donations brought in by Boston After School & Beyond, a nonprofit organization that has long supported summer learning in the area.
The Fifth Quarter will place more than 2,000 high-need students — mostly middle-schoolers — in 31 free programs around the Boston area. Some will be run by the district, and others by community partners.
BPS faculty will help teach them all, marrying the district's academic goals for students to new experiences — like salsa dancing, archery or tennis.
There's an irony to the program, in that it hopes to better prepare students for high-stakes tests by helping them fall in love with the kind of learning — creative, collective, and catered to their individual interests — that testing can sometimes squeeze out.
One participating organization is Outward Bound on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor. Laurie Sherman, the program's executive vice president, says having BPS faculty as co-teachers will help Outward Bound blend its curriculum of science and character-building with students' regular schoolwork back on shore.
"The kids get the benefit of co-teachers who are coming from different backgrounds. That's absolutely strengthening our relationship with the Boston Public Schools," Sherman says.
If the Fifth Quarter program is judged a success it could expand to include high school students in the years ahead.
It's a sign that we may be entering a new age of summer school — one that finally sounds like fun.
This segment aired on June 14, 2017.