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Philly summer school was well-liked, but not well-attended

The program was touted as a way to help students who did not have permanent teachers for much of the year catch up.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A four-week summer enrichment program that was aimed in large part at helping students who lacked a certified teacher for much of the academic year suffered from low attendance, according to data released by the School District.

The District program ended last week. It was targeted to 2,500 students in grades K-7 who did not have a permanent highly qualified teacher for at least two-thirds of the academic year. These students were often taught by a succession of substitutes, who may have been uncertified, because of the District’s high teacher vacancy rate.

The school sites for the summer program were chosen based on the extent of teacher vacancies during the 2015-16 academic year, and the District called on principals to recommend certain students to the program based on whether they were taught by certified District teachers or substitutes.

But, according to spokesman Fernando Gallard, the District has no official way of tracking how many of the students who enrolled in the program fit the criteria of the group that was prioritized. And District data show that about 1,500 students signed up, but just under 700 attended regularly.

At Cayuga Elementary School in North Philadelphia, one of the 26 sites, the program was offered to all students who attended the school during the year, regardless of whether they had fully certified teachers.

Cayuga parents who enrolled their children in the program said they were mainly concerned with avoiding the “summer slide” — when students forget some academic skills during summer break — or helping their children improve skills with which they may be struggling.

Niria Rosario said her family chose to send her 6-year-old grandson, Romeo, to the enrichment program at Cayuga because his teacher said he needed some additional help in reading and literacy. She did not know that the program was originally meant to target students who lacked regular teachers.

Similarly, Daisy Matos said that her daughter, Jada, was not attending the program to “fix any particular problem.” Rather, Matos wanted Jada to “be ready for 6th grade and not forget stuff.”

At Cayuga, 58 students signed up, but only 24 to 38 showed up any given week.

Most parents said that they heard of the program through fliers the teachers sent home with the students and that they were under the impression that students from each grade and each classroom were informed. None of the parents who spoke to The Notebook were aware of the program’s initial purpose, but were thrilled that the District was offering it to their children.

“I have seen a huge improvement,” said Rosario of her grandson’s reading skills. “Everything has been great. If anything, I would have liked it to continue for another two weeks.”

The parents seemed generally unaware of the issue that plagued Cayuga and other schools throughout the year: the lack of a full staff.

Matos and other parents also said that they were overall very satisfied with the program, but wish it was all day, rather than a half-day.

“I’m not going to get in the way of my kids’ education,” said Anthony Nelson Cruz Jr., whose two sons attend the enrichment program. “The more time they are in school the better. I just wish it was more time during the day. They really like to be here.”

While students were also unaware of the stated reason for providing the enrichment program, some did say that they had seen a lot of substitutes throughout the year.

Dijoaah Purnell, 9, said that in the last year she had had at least three different teachers.

“My teacher got in a car accident, and then another moved away, and we had a couple of substitute teachers,” she said.

Cayuga’s summer program principal, Adriana Frangione, said that the students were all excited to attend school in the summer. When The Notebook visited, there were seven to 16 students per classroom. It ran from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays from July 5 to July 28.

The program was structured like a typical school day, with breakfast and lunch provided by the school and 95 minutes each of reading and math. And many of the teachers, who during the school year work full time in the District, mostly at other schools, were impressed by the quality and amount of resources at their disposal.

Evelyn Mitchell taught a group of rising 3rd and 4th graders at Cayuga, but during the academic year she is a 2nd-grade teacher at Sheridan Elementary. She said that when she arrived, everything she needed — the curriculum, posters, guided reading books, and workbooks — was ready for the teachers and students.

“It’s a little different during the school year,” she said jokingly, explaining that generally teachers are scrounging for these types of materials.

And although Mitchell taught the largest class — 16 — she said that was fewer kids than she is used to during the school year, making it easier to teach. She could give each student individual attention to make sure they were making the necessary progress, she said.

Mitchell also said that she was aware of the teacher shortage and had heard that the District was planning to use a summer program to address the needs of students who had not had a full-time teacher for most of the year. But, she said, that did not seem to be the primary objective.

At the same time, she said, “I think it helps with summer slide and helps some of the students who need to make more progress” before the year starts.

Gallard confirmed that addressing the needs of schools and students who lacked adequate teachers during the year was indeed the initial purpose, but said that principals may be using the program in different ways.

“It was very targeted towards a particular group of students,” he said, adding that the District was not planning to have the program next summer because “we hope that the teacher shortage will not be an issue going forward.”

He pointed out that although students who lacked certified teachers were prioritized, the program was also meant to help English language learners, some special education students, and any student not on grade level.

But in the meantime, students, teachers, and parents at Cayuga were thrilled with the program and wish that the option was available every summer.

“I am at summer school because I don’t know a lot of my math,” Dijoaah, the rising 4th grader, said, “I like summer school. I get to see my friends, I love my teacher, I have a great teacher, and I get to learn a lot more about math.”

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