A teacher and four students working around a table.
Summer programs in Wichita Public Schools focused on reading retention among other key innovatives. (Courtesy image/USD 259)

School closures and remote learning brought on by the pandemic took a toll on student learning, but Wichita Public Schools say robust summer school programs financed with federal COVID relief money succeeded in helping students get back on track.

More than 2,800 students participated in the daylong summer programs that ran through June. Participating students in kindergarten through eighth grade regained knowledge they had forgotten or lost due to remote learning, according to pre- and post-summer school assessments of their math and language skills. And nearly all parents of participating children felt teachers were well-prepared and made the experience fun for their children.

“What I’m excited about in our data is not only did some kids not slide backwards in June,” said Loren Hatfield, executive director of secondary schools at USD 259 at the July 25 school board meeting, “but, they actually grew in terms of their comprehension.”

It’s welcome news for a school district strained by school closures, remote learning, public scrutiny and learning loss brought on by COVID-19.  

A timeline of school closure

Kansas became the first state in the nation to close schools due to COVID. Gov. Laura Kelly on March 17, 2020, announced that all Kansas schools would close for the rest of the year. In many cases, students would go home for spring break and not return. 

“I understand the hardship that school closure places on our families, as well as the social and emotional impact it may have on our students,” USD 259 Superintendent Dr. Alicia Thompson said in a statement following Kelly’s announcement.

Classes would not resume until after Labor Day. The Wichita Board of Education voted to delay the start to give teachers and schools time to learn how to use the new remote learning technology they would be operating in the 2020-21 school year. USD 259 initially offered parents a choice of  traditional on-site instruction, remote instruction connected to a student’s school, and self-paced online classes provided by a third-party vendor.

However, that plan fell through as COVID-19 surged across Wichita, reducing the number of available teachers due to illness and quarantines. In November 2020 the school board voted to move all middle and high school classes to remote learning and no longer offer in-person classes for those schools. The same would happen to elementary schools later in the month. 

“I want you to know that our team is doing everything humanly possible, and then some, to continue serving our students through this pandemic,” Thompson said in a November 2020 interview with KWCH.

Getting students back in school

In January 2021 the school board voted to slowly transition students back to on-site learning. At that point quarantining staff had dropped from 1,137 in November to 602, enough to adequately hold some classes in person, according to USD 259. Students would alternate the days they would attend classes in person and remotely. 

Parents – many struggling to both supervise children in remote school and work – were ready to have their children back to learning in physical schools. Parents complained that young children were not able to sit alone in front of screens for long periods. 

“They get frustrated all day, being home all day, and they just want to go out,”  parent Brenda Jimenez told KWCH. 

Parent and former school board member Joy Eakins also worried about the social supports children at home weren’t getting. “There’s a lot of extra support that they need right now in order to make sure that they’re in classes, to get them lunch and breakfast every day,” Eakins said. 

Learning loss from COVID-19

Wichita public school students did not return full time to the classrooms until August 2021. By that time, damage had been done. 

KMUW reported that more than 30% of Kansas students fell behind their grade level in math and language arts in the 2020-21 school year. In math, 28% of students were testing below grade level; that increased to 34%. In language arts, 27% of students were below grade level. That went up to just over 30%. 

“We weren’t seeing the growth we had anticipated with things we were putting in place even before the pandemic,” said Deputy Superintendent Gil Alvarez.

Wichita was not alone in seeing these test score decreases. 

“Every data point we have is down,” said Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson in an interview with KMUW, “and so is everyone else’s across the country.”

Along with learning loss, more students were missing school on a regular basis. Students who missed more than 15 days of school a year rose from 14 percent in 2019 to 17.5 percent statewide in 2021.

“They didn’t even want to come back in to even take the state assessment,” Alvarez said.  “So we didn’t have what I would consider the same participation … in our state assessment scores.” 

Fixing the loss with summer school programs

Aware of the tremendous impact the pandemic had on America’s schools, Congress allocated COVID relief funds known as Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER). Wichita Public Schools has received $262 million in ESSER funds that must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024. No less than $35 million of this money must be spent to address learning loss.

This money allowed Wichita Public Schools to undertake the most extensive summer school program this year. More than 2,800 children participated in the monthlong, all-day summer school program held June 6-June 30, which targeted children identified as needing additional academic support due to learning loss through the pandemic. This included about 2,200 elementary students and more than 500 middle school students. 

Jennifer Wright was a teacher in charge of a kindergarten summer class at Mueller Elementary School. “It was an opportunity for students to review,” Wright said. “I think that’s the real important thing here, getting the students ready for next year.”

Elementary summer program teachers focused on three areas: word recognition, math, and compression and writing. The comprehension and writing curriculum developed for summer was different from what was taught during the regular school year. 

“I had this dream,” said Michelle Cuda, executive director for elementary schools at USD 259. “I wanted it to be based around literature.”

Every week students would have a book that classes were based around, and at the end of the lesson every kid got to take the book home.

Two students from Buckner Elementary School showing off one of their summer school projects. (Courtesy image/USD 259)

A typical summer program day for elementary school

While some students were expressly invited, all students across USD 259 had the opportunity to attend summer school, but only some school locations were offering the programs. So, to help students get familiar with the new environment and new classmates and to help build up social skills, each day would start with a community building exercise.

Then, they would start reviewing basic reading and writing skills, the alphabet and other phonetics to strengthen their understanding of reading. Wright explained that reading comprehension was a large part of her class. 

“While this was a kindergarten class, they were getting ready for first grade,” Wright said. “So, we wanted to set them up for the next school year.” 

Next, they would choose a story to focus on and review. Each day they would dig into topics such as character emotions or the setting and use the topics as springboards for writing lessons. 

The last part of the morning would be used to review math, and the afternoons introduced more fun. 

After their noon recess and lunch, students would return for an activity with Arts Partners, a local nonprofit that brings artists into classrooms. Arts Partners teachers led hands-on activities incorporating arts, science and engineering. 

“I love that we did this,” Wright said. “One week we talked about ecosystems… and they got to build their own ecosystems out of Play-Doh.”

Middle and high school summer programs

Middle school summer programs focused on social-emotional learning, math and English-language arts. Like elementary school, middle school focused the curriculum into the first half of the day and used the afternoon for an activity to enhance the experience. 

“We were just getting a lot of excitement with how we were doing our learning in the morning and the engagement and applied learning in the afternoon,” Alvarez said. 

These activities included field trips to WSU Tech, Greater Wichita YMCA and the Sedgwick County Zoo. 

“We wanted to show kids what career paths are out there and what jobs might you not have even heard of,” Hatfield reported to the school board at their July 25 meeting.

High school summer school remained primarily focused on helping students retake classes they did not pass during the school year, improve grades and earn new credits. Other high school summer programming is put on by outside organizations that have partnered through USD 259 such as Early College Academy, a partnership between Friends University and Wichita Northwest High School.

What worked and what didn’t

Overwhelmingly, parents surveyed by Wichita Public Schools stated that they were happy with the switch to full-day classes. In previous years, summer classes for elementary and middle school students lasted from 9 a.m. to noon, but this year the day was extended to 3 p.m. Some parents surveyed also expressed interest in having the programs run through July, as well as June. 

“We did that not knowing how teachers would be receptive to it, how parents would be receptive to it, or how students would react to the longer day,” Cuda said. “However, the feedback we received from parents and staff is that they appreciated the longer day and they wanted more of it.”

“Overall, summer camp was a much-needed, uplifting experience for students and staff,” said one anonymous teacher in the end-of-summer survey. Cuda said it was her favorite quote she received from the survey.

In addition, 96 percent of parents of elementary students said they believed teachers were well prepared and made summer classes fun for their children; 97 percent of parents of middle school children said the same. 

Wright agreed with this assessment by parents: “What they expected the teachers to teach was phenomenal,” Wright said. “They had adequate training and really determined what we needed to work on this summer.” 

A majority of parents surveyed also stated that information was readily available about summer programs. However Hatfield and Cuda both believe the number could be better. 15 percent of elementary school parents and 18 percent of middle school parents stated they did not have enough information on the programs. 

Finally, some parents in the survey stated that they would like the summer programs to be longer and extended further into July. 

For Wright, her biggest critique was not having a real trip for her elementary students. According to the presentation provided to the USD 259 Board of Education by Cuda and Hatfield, many teachers wished more of the afternoon activities were in person and not virtual. To accomodate a limited staff available to teach students in more than 200 classrooms, Arts Partners taught some sessions remotely. 

“I feel like every year, you learn from the previous year,” Wright said. 

ESSER funding and what happens after

Wichita Public Schools officials said they would like to continue these summer programs into the future, but that may not be an option once the federal money from ESSER is exhausted. 

“We know that being able to do it at the capacity we’ve been doing it is probably something we would not be able to sustain,” Cuda said. 

Alvarez and his team have already been planning ahead. “I think some of our partners have been talking about how they can help without ESSER completely funding it,” Alvarez said. 

His hope is that through community partnerships and parent support, summer programs will continue to be engaging and fun experiences that will continue to push back against the learning loss from COVID-19.

Alvarez explained that they will not truly know how successful the summer program was at correcting the learning loss dealt by the pandemic until students are assessed in the fall. However, as reports are now, it helped prevent any more loss happening over the summer for the kids who participated. 

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.