A new type of summer school

Longer days, more activities at Camp MPS this year

LYNNHURST — Make summer school more fun.

That was the assignment for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) administrators who this July launched a revamped K–8 summer program known as Camp MPS.

How do you make time spent in the classroom during summer vacation more enjoyable for elementary and middle school students? It may seem counterintuitive, but the district’s approach was to make the days longer, extending them to six hours from four hours.

Jan Braaten, the district’s summer program coordinator, said the extended school day made it possible to include more programming, like physical education, media, music and art classes. In past years, the focus for Camp MPS was on reading and math almost exclusively, Braaten said.

Staff at the Camp MPS sites also set themes for their programs this year. Some sites used additional district resources to plan field trips or bring in specialists from area museums and parks.

“What we’re trying to really do is to make it more engaging so that it actually increases attendance, which increases learning,” Braaten explained. “The whole point is still to raise academic achievement, in particular in reading and math, but we’ve made it a much more enriching program and a whole lot more engaging and fun.”

Camp MPS ran July 8–31 at 18 Minneapolis elementary and middle schools, including four in Southwest. Attendance at the four-days-per-week, 16-day program was voluntary.

Over the years, the voluntary attendance policy meant that MPS summer program sites saw a drop-off in attendance during the final weeks of the program, as students left on vacation with their families or took part in other summer activities, Braaten said.

That may have been a major factor in the disappointingly low level of academic improvement seen among summer session attendees. If more students stick out the four-week session this year, and there is a corresponding rise in their academic performance, the changes to Camp MPS might be considered a success.

Mary Rynchek, administrator of the Camp MPS program at Burroughs Community School, said her students seemed to be genuinely looking forward to classes when they arrived by bus at 9 a.m.

“Every day, there’s a feeling of excitement and enthusiasm,” Rynchek said. “I haven’t seen anybody coming in with the sad face or the dour scowl.

“They’re all getting off the bus looking perky, looking forward to [school].”

Measuring improvement

Despite all the changes, the focus for Camp MPS remained the same this year: raising student performance in reading and math.

Braaten said the district relied on test scores and teacher recommendations to determine which students would benefit most from the summer session, and sent their families invitations to Camp MPS in the spring. There were about 6,500 applications to Camp MPS this year, she said.

Determining just how big a boost those students receive from the extra classroom time, if they get any at all, has not been quite so easy.

Pre- and post-tests administered during summer session students have shown “definite gains,” Braaten said. But other measures of summer session learning contradict those results.

Research, Evaluation and Assessement Director David Heistad relies on data from standardized math and reading tests administered during the regular school year to measure improvement. The scores of students who attended the summer session are compared to similar students who were eligible to attend, but did not.

“In general, we haven’t found any large, significant differences,” Heistad said. “What we’ve found is that individual schools may beat the odds but, overall, the progress of students at summer school has been limited.”

What Heistad lacked in his research, though, was reliable data on student attendance. It may be that students who attended the full summer session made measurable gains on standardized tests, but those gains were hidden by the test results of students who attended only part of the summer session, he suggested.

Heistad said he was hopeful Camp MPS sites would collect more reliable attendance data this summer, allowing him to draw a stronger correlation between attendance and improvement in math and reading.

Engaging students

It may surprise a working adult who pines for those long, lazy days of summer vacation, but teacher Joyce Lasser said her summer session students “really like summer school.”

“I’ve gotten statements like, ‘I wish this was our class all year long’ [or] ‘I like summer school more than regular school,’” Lasser said.

During the second week of Camp MPS at Burroughs, Lasser was leading a class of about 20 students — most entering the third and fourth grades next year — through a writing exercise. She showed them a mock-up of the book they’d make before Camp MPS was over, which included a pop-up pyramid.

“We’re going to be writing about King Tut because we’re learning about Egypt, and I want them to come up with their own creative ideas,” Lasser explained, adding later: “If nothing else, these children are writing every day.”

The longer school day meant Lasser, a veteran of several summer sessions, had more time to prepare for class. Also for the first time during the summer, she had an educational assistant working one-on-one with students who needed extra help.

Specialists like art teacher Meri Gauthier were another new addition to Camp MPS. The Egyptian theme found its way into Gauthier’s art lesson, reinforcing the reading and writing lessons the students worked on earlier in the day.

Lasser wouldn’t predict how the longer day and other changes to Camp MPS might impact students. As in past years, she’d already had a few students miss days for camp or vacation.

She sympathized with parents who chose those activities for a child over another day in the classroom.

“You don’t want [children] to miss out on the things they remember most in their lives,” she said.