This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Just a few weeks shy of 8th grade, students Donathan Harris, Shanell Gordon, Tusheauh Jones, and Daquon Hanks are learning PowerPoint, honing academic skills and doing quite a lot of sightseeing in a program at Penn Treaty School this month.
Across the District, they are among the lucky few.
For a second year, summer coursework has been slashed due to the District’s ongoing fiscal crisis, with few programs in place, especially at the elementary level. Call it summer school lite.
“Given the District’s budget realities, the decision has been made for a second year to cut back on summer programs. … That’s the way it is here,” said Vicki Ellis, with the District’s Office of Academic Enrichment and Support. The programs operating this summer are funded mostly with federal grants, she said.
About 1,500 students are getting on-the-job training in a work-ready program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. And more than 1,900 students have received special-education services as required by their individual education plans.
Besides those programs, only about 2,000 students are receiving either enrichment or remedial help in stark contrast to the “summer school for all” policy put in place by former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The Summer Learning and More (SLAM) program drew tens of thousands of children into classrooms from 2009 to 2011.
At that time, Ellis said, “we had many other funds,” including federal stimulus grants and state education assistance program money.
The loss of summer learning experiences impacts student achievement, said Ellis.
“For every year that we go forward without options for students in the summer and after school, students are losing the opportunity to stay on track and not lose skills,” she said. “Summer school is part of the continuum of what we need to be offering students. It’s one thing not to do it for one or two years. But to the extent that we are underfunding things that need to be done, it’s only going to get more dire.”
At the secondary level, just over 800 teenagers are participating in credit recovery or so-called bridge programs, which give rising 9th graders a taste of the high school experience. An additional 340 seniors were able to make up the one or two credits they needed to graduate. They received diplomas last week.
At the elementary level, there is enrichment programming reaching about 250 students identified as English language learners, and a startup literacy initiative called the Springboard Collaborative has enrolled about 300 students in four District schools as well as nearly 400 students in four charter schools.
Otherwise, there are but four small enrichment programs for the K-8 population, enrolling only about 100 children, including Penn Treaty’s focus on the city’s history.
The lack of summer options has frustrated parents. Ellis said she had fielded numerous calls from parents seeking credit recovery programs for their high school age children as well as from parents of children in grades 1 to 8 who had not been promoted.
At the District’s urging, some schools, including Penn Treaty, set up “retention prevention” programs during the school year aimed at keeping students on track to pass coursework and win promotion.
High school students who need to recover credit after failing a course have a costly option: pay a fee of several hundred dollars to make up the course from a private provider.
Penn Treaty’s summer program grew out of the Ackerman-era Voyager program, according to principal Sam Howell. At the time, he said, Penn Treaty offered Voyager to neighborhood students but also ran an enrichment program for its own students, who typically commuted to the school from distant neighborhoods under the long-running desegregation program.
“There was always learning and a bit of fun, like cup-stacking,” Howell recalled.
The program that Howell and his staff devised — and won a federal school improvement grant to implement — “enlists kids because they want to be here,” said Howell. The four-week program, with its focus on local history, is cross-curricular, tied to PSSA content, and includes one trip each week. Last summer 50 students participated, and about 40 are enrolled this summer.
Students have learned about William Penn and Benjamin Franklin and have toured Pennsbury Manor. They have also taken a walking tour of Old City and a double-decker bus tour to see the sights in Center City, along the Ben Franklin Parkway and South Street.
The Betsy Ross House was Tusheauh’s favorite. “I really like taking the trips,” said Tusheauh, 14, who convinced her friend Shanell, 13, to join the program.
Donathan, 14, said he liked learning about the city and the excursions. “We have been learning new stuff that we don’t learn during the year,” he said.
Teacher Kerri Todd said the program has broadened the students’ horizons. “They live in Philadelphia and have no idea what this city is really about,” she said. “They’ve been more or less stuck in their neighborhoods, so taking these tours, it’s like taking them to Disney World. They get the entire scene — the history, the murals, the arts.”
Penn Treaty in the Fishtown section has been a grade 5-8 school but is adding grades 9-12 in September.
With no summer remedial program, Howell established a springtime afterschool program, also using school improvement grant money.
Students failing a course are required to stay after school one and a half hours every day beginning in April. They get a double dose of the subject matter — during class and then again after school. About 25 students participated last year, and twice that many this past spring.
“I made it ‘summer’ school in April and May,” said Howell.
To save money and utilize an air-conditioned building, the District is operating bridge and credit-recovery programs funded by various grants for nearly 300 students from 10 high schools at a central location — Carver Engineering & Science High School, just west of Temple University.
The consolidated programming has worked out well, said principal David Cohen.
“The climate is great,” Cohen said. “Kids from all the schools are getting along well. They come here knowing what they need to do. We haven’t seen any problems.”
No neighborhood-based conflicts have arisen, despite ongoing concerns expressed at school-closing meetings that pushing teens out of their home schools might result in animosity or confrontations.
This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.