Normally during the summer, schools sit empty, waiting for students to return. This summer, the halls of several schools are bubbling with chatter, laughter and salsa music as more than 1,600 Eugene students take extra courses.
Eugene School District 4J introduced a new summer school program with the intention of bridging the learning loss gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic and online learning.
The Summer Enrichment and Academic Learning Program uses non-standard learning methods to help get first- through eighth-grade students on track to succeed in their upcoming school year. About 600 students signed up for the 22-day program being held at three elementary schools: César E. Chávez, Holt and River Road.
“The kids all seem engaged, they all seem to be having fun with the different activities that are going on,” said Casandra Kamens, curriculum administrator for extended learning at 4J. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of sitting time for students. There’s a lot of hands-on work.”
The in-class time is balanced between teacher instruction and student projects that highlight areas of English language arts, math and science.
Kamens said that the district developed specific strategies to address learning loss in the curriculum, such as building phonics skills and reading skills, which have been lacking for many students after the pandemic. The SEAL Program also uses Math For Love, a tool that incorporates games into math problems, which the students and teachers have been enjoying.
“We are working on their learning loss at the same time still. One of the goals of our program is to really spark joy in learning for kids,” Kamens said. “I’ve been telling the teachers all along, if the kids aren’t having fun in their learning, then we need to switch something up, and we need to change.”
A change of pace for teachers
Amy Mathiesen, who normally teaches third grade at Adams Elementary, has been working with incoming third graders at Chávez. Although there is direct instruction, she said the program is very different from a normal school year with a focus on student engagement.
“The curriculum is different than what we use in our general ed classrooms,” Mathiesen said. “The kids are so excited to participate, so that’s the big difference. It’s not like a regular school, day or year curriculum, or even activities. We have a lot of enrichment activities, and it’s just a lot of fun. And it’s fun for teachers too because it’s so different.”
The math curriculum has been especially exciting to work with, she said, and the kids love it. She and the other third-grade teachers working at Chávez for the summer intend to incorporate some of the math games into their curriculum during the school year.
When it comes to math, many students have a negative connotation and poor self-esteem, Mathiesen said. The Math For Love games make it so that students don’t even realize they’re solving problems, which has proven to be successful.
Shelli Hopper-Moore, a fourth-grade teacher at Charlemagne Elementary School, has been instructing rising fourth graders at Chávez. She taught summer school at Chávez last year, but she said the SEAL Program has been hugely different. The level of engagement is higher thanks to the hands-on projects.
“Instead of at home where they might be maybe playing video games or watching a lot of TV or just be inside, they’re socializing, they’re doing science, they’re being creative,” Hopper-Moore said. “This sounds like I’m making it up, but I’m not making it up. One kid said ‘I love summer school. Oh, no, it’s a weekend. We’re not gonna be here until Monday.’ I don’t, generally in my regular classroom.
“A lot of these kids are really excited to be here, and that surprises me sometimes.”
Another big focus of the SEAL Program has been making up lost time in social-emotional learning. The pandemic caused isolation for many students, limiting socialization. McKenzie Zimbelman, a third-grade teacher at Yujin Gakuen Japanese Immersion Elementary School spending the summer at Chávez, said she and other teachers have been working to build up students’ confidence in the classroom.
“Building that (confidence) in them, that will help them learn better in the fall as well,” Zimbelman said. “We have smaller class sizes here, too. So that’s been really helpful as well as to build deeper connections quicker with kids.”
Summer school outcomes
Kamens said the district will be conducting a thorough survey after the summer session ends on Friday, Aug. 12, to get feedback from the community.
“We want to be able to improve on it and make sure that we’re giving families what they need for their students to grow academically, but also to want to engage in school,” Kamens said. “(What) we really want is for kids who have had a hard time with school and enjoying school to come through our program in the end, knowing that they can be successful in school.”
The SEAL Project is funded by the Oregon Department of Education’s Summer Learning Grant and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III. Kamens said that 20 percent of the district’s ESSER III allocation must go towards addressing learning loss through September 2024.
The boosted funding means teachers got $250 to spend on student rewards and incentives. Kamens said this is probably triple what teachers normally get during the school year to spend on prizes for students.
High school summer program
4J’s ESSER III funding also funds another summer school program, the High School Summer Intensives Program.
The idea for the high school summer program first began in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, College & Career Readiness and CTE Administrator Tia Holliday said. The district already saw a need for more diverse, engaging courses for older students, but the pandemic made the program an even bigger asset.
Summer Intensives started out remote in summer 2020, hybrid in 2021, and now almost fully in-person for the summer of 2022.
“It certainly gave us an opportunity to give students new learning experiences during the pandemic and an opportunity to earn credit that they might not have had during the school year, as well as reengage them in school,” Holliday said.
Holliday said 1,060 high schoolers are enrolled in Summer Intensives right now with over 40 courses to choose from. Although there are some purely academic courses available, most of the courses are electives and subjects students normally cannot take during the school year, such as Japanese mythology and folklore, deaf literature, beekeeping, crime scene science, drones and more. Some of the more popular classes, like woodworking, engineering and cooking, have multiple sessions.
“We want to give teachers an opportunity to teach something that they have a passion for,” Holliday said. “Teachers get to have exclusive design over their content. They submit a proposal to us, and we review it and work with them, their standards base, and there’s a capstone project that’s required for each course.
“Teachers teach to their passions, and the students have absolute choice about what they sign up for.”
At North Eugene High, Kelley Deitemeyer teaches a class for first aid and CPR certification. On Tuesday afternoon, one of her classes came in to practice skills they learned online. She started the summer off with 90 students who are split up into 14 different sessions.
Churchill High incoming freshman Sheridan Schilling said the CPR class has been a great opportunity for her and other students.
“I want to pursue a career in the medical field, so this was something that I feel like would kind of let me know if this is something that I’m really interested in,” Schilling said. “I think it would look good on a resume and just helpful for life in general.”