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How to Build a Blended Summer School
A few years ago, we experienced an exceptionally cold winter in Chicago. Several schools in Berwyn South School District 100 had to close for snow days due to the wind chill. During this time, the district was working with myON, a digital literacy tool that allowed our students to access thousands of texts from home while on their mobile devices. Our staff could monitor their reading through the online teacher portal, and they were pleasantly surprised to discover how many of their kids were reading at home during those days when school was closed.
The district’s leaders loved what we saw and decided to use a similar approach to encouraging students to read independently during spring break. Over that initial break, our kids read for 750 hours. These impressive results got us thinking: Why not try the same thing as part of a virtual summer school model?
Setting up a Blended Summer School
Our myON “leader” at the time was Principal and Director of Literacy Jeremy Majesty, who along with Vice Principal Lindsey Lahr, led the Virtual Summer School initiative, which kicked off with a pilot in the summer of 2014. There were quite a few student volunteers that first year, since kids who participated in the inaugural virtual summer school were allowed to keep their school-issued devices over the summer (as long as they completed weekly reading and math assignments).
We started with the tools we already had, using the myON website and dashboard to help our students enroll in their virtual summer school classes. The dashboard gave us access to lists of all of the students who had registered, so we could assign those students to a teacher and place them on a designated roster for the summer. We also used the platform to assign our kids their weekly assignments. Because we had used the same system during the school year, our students were already familiar with logging in to see their tasks, so there was little to no learning curve.
From there, we worked with our students and staff to set goals for the summer program. We used a blended learning approach: Students checked in with teachers on a semi-regular basis, but we also relied on our kids to be accountable for their own work. myON allowed them to set their own reading goals that matched both their Lexile levels and their individual interests. Our teachers had access to these stats as well, and could tap into their students’ plans and assign reading that matched the subjects and genres that each child showed interest in.
By creating the virtual summer school, we opened a door of opportunity for students who needed it most: 70 to 80 percent of our participants are low-income, Hispanic students. As I mentioned, every child who enrolls gets a school-issued tablet to keep and use over the summer. For many families this means a lot, just as it means a lot to our faculty to provide students and families with continual access to reading material. Our virtual summer school students have all the materials and resources they need on their devices at home, so they don’t have to rely on a community library.
Encouraging Student Accountability
Keeping students on track with their reading has evolved over these last few summers. The first year, some students participated because they couldn’t attend a physical summer school. Some parents wanted their kids to keep up with reading over the summer. As our demographics and goals have changed over the past few summers, the program has evolved, alongside our expectations for students’ learning.
During our last summer, under the leadership of Allison Boutet, principal of Heritage Middle School, the program was redesigned to be a more blended format, with the intent to help develop more personalized goals, better track progress and offer support each week. The district hired a handful of teachers to check in with our students on a weekly basis to make sure they were staying on track. These teachers worked around five hours a week, so it was a modest commitment from the teachers’ standpoint, but it was a huge help in inspiring student accountability. Another way we hold students accountable is by creating student contracts on which students agree to meet a certain threshold of work in order to participate.
How to Replicate Our Results
As we enter our third summer, the transition to a blended environment has gone better than we could have expected. The program continues to grow, surprising us with the results every year.
To districts or even individual schools considering venturing into the virtual summer school model, I recommend beginning with a digital platform that is familiar. Without being able to lean on myON the way we did, our virtual summer school wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as it has been. Students, parents and teachers all need to feel comfortable with the online platform prior to starting a summer program, so that everyone involved can help each other succeed.
Sue Butler is the director of professional development and learning in Berwyn South School District 100. She has been in education for 33 years, previously serving as a classroom teacher, interventionist, instructional coach and interim principal.