Worcester’s pared-down summer school still has impact
telegram.com. Scott O'Connell. July 26, 2017.

The dog days of summer were anything but lazy inside several classrooms at the Canterbury Street Computer-Based Magnet School on Wednesday, where students in the school’s summer school program giggled and chattered, leaning excitedly over their workstations to assemble that morning’s science experiments.

A year ago, there were doubts such a scene would be possible, given a daunting budget deficit at the time. At a School Committee meeting last July, Superintendent Maureen Binienda reluctantly issued an ultimatum: The district’s summer school would have to be canceled in 2017, unless funding materialized.

While the money needed for the program was never fully recouped, the School Department scrapped together enough dollars to put together a lower-funded but, officials hoped, comparative service.

Was the funding enough?

“Yes and no,” said Kerrie Flynn, a special education teacher at Canterbury who has been working at the school’s summer school program over the past month.

On one hand, Canterbury – one of nine elementary sites around the city this summer – had enough materials and personnel to offer a robust program, she said, which while different in format from past summer school programs has still been effective as far as its main purpose: preventing the erosion over the summer of skills students learned during the past school year.

But the program’s smaller budget limited opportunities for younger students to participate at other locations around the city, some of which only had room for upper elementary grade students.

“In the past, we were able to take kids from kindergarten up,” said Susan O’Neil, the district’s deputy superintendent. “It would be good to go back to that model.”

In total, 695 students this year participated in the 18-day elementary summer school program, called Camp Explore, which wraps up Friday. Numbers for the secondary level program, which essentially had no budget earlier this year and consequently had to drop a paid internship initiative for high school participants, were not immediately available, but school officials said before the summer logistical tweaks they made had nearly doubled the program’s student capacity compared to past years.

At the Canterbury site, at least, which as of this week was enrolling 40 kids in total from Canterbury and the nearby Goddard School of Science and Technology, “our numbers were not what we had hoped,” said Ms. Flynn, who added the program has had a rolling admissions policy all summer to allow anyone to join at any point. The smaller turnout did ensure younger students would be able to take part.

Unlike past iterations of the program, in which students would spend their entire day with a single teacher, this year’s elementary summer school initiative, by financial necessity, adopted a secondary school-like schedule in which participants rotated between different classes. At Canterbury, for instance, students’ four-hour day was broken up equally into math, English and science classes, as well as a fourth “enrichment” block that cycled kids through a series of activities in music, theater, physical education and other subjects.

“The main goal of the Worcester schools this summer was to have the kids actively engaged,” said Erica Zwicker, a preschool teacher at Goddard who has been teaching science classes at the Canterbury summer school program. “We’re doing hands-on experiments nearly every single day.”

Canterbury’s math classes, meanwhile, have students play various math-related games; on Thursday morning, for example, the kids were engaged in a “dice war,” competing one-on-one, scoring points for rolling a higher number than their opponent.

“They don’t know they’re even learning, because it’s just fun,” Ms. Flynn said.

The school department plans to determine just how much they’re learning this coming school year, when the district will analyze students’ standardized assessment results, according to Ms. O’Neil. But there’s already ample evidence in the education world, school staff said, that summer school – fully funded or not – is more beneficial to students’ development than doing nothing over the long school break.

“Research on summer skills loss talks about it being cumulative – it’s hard to catch up” once students start falling behind, Ms. O’Neil said.

Anecdotally, at least, Ms. Flynn said it’s apparent which of her students participated in summer school when they return in the fall.

“I can definitely tell,” she said, adding they’ll often still be using the new words and other new knowledge they learned. “It’s amazing.”

Visit the News Archive for more magnet school news.