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Promising Practices: How St. Louis Schools are Reimagining Summer Learning through an Equity Lens

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Local schools and districts are launching innovative summer learning programs that combine engaging, student-centered learning experiences with rich academic content. Research has shown that low-income children have less access to high-quality summer programs and are more likely to experience the “summer slide,” returning to school in the fall further behind than when they completed the school year. This summer, the extended school closures due to COVID have heightened these inequities and led some schools and districts to focus their efforts on reimagining summer learning opportunities to better serve children.

University City’s New Approach to Summer Learning

After a year of immense challenges for both students and school staff, the School District of University City is hoping their new approach to summer school ignites excitement and connection through learning. “The lack of connection over this past year has been tremendous,” says Superintendent, Dr. Sharonica Hardin-Bartley who notes that many students have been learning remotely since March 13, 2020. “We want to re-engage students in experiences that not only give them a chance to catch up and accelerate their learning, but also provide the joy and enrichment of a summer camp experience.”

This summer, the district will launch Camp U, a free, in-person camp for rising 1st-8th graders grounded in a Project-Based Learning model that infuses core academic content with hands-on experiences. The district developed Camp U’s offerings in partnership with different St. Louis institutions, including the Magic House’s Made makerspace, COCA, the Saint Louis Science Center, The Green Center, and others.

At the elementary level, students will engage with learning themes centered on key guiding inquiries. For example, rising third graders will explore how they can use data to reduce their families’ impact on the environment. Middle schoolers can choose between nine different camps exploring a wide range of topics including exploring food deserts and urban farming and creating digital creations through 3D design, podcasting, and graphic design.

Equity was a driving force in the development and rollout of Camp U. “Families with means have always been able to enroll their children in enrichment camps at great St. Louis institutions,” says Dr. Hardin-Bartley. “We wanted to make these opportunities available to all children in University City.” To ensure children with the highest need were able to participate, students receiving Tier 2 interventions were invited to enroll in Camp U weeks before opening it up to the rest of the University City population. Seats are already filled, signaling the enthusiasm from parents and students at this new approach to summer learning.

Ali Academy’s Student-Centered Social Justice Camp

This summer, Ali Academy will host a week-long Social Justice Camp for 3rd-5th graders in St. Louis City. School founder, Chester Asher, has spent the last year developing Ali Academy’s new school model, which integrates rigorous academics with meaningful, real-world learning experiences. “The Social Justice Summer Camp will allow us to test our theory of action and inform the design of our school,” says Asher.

During the camp, students will explore issues that affect them and their community and envision a better future. The week will culminate in student-led projects that take action towards changing their community for the better. Throughout the process, students will be exposed to a variety of careers, exercise critical thinking skills, and learn how to read graphs and statistics.

The design of the summer camp is based on lessons learned from Ali Academy’s Spring Break pilot, a two-day version of the Social Justice Camp. During the pilot, students led projects that included creating a suicide prevention PSA and engaging hospital leaders in a conversation around equity in healthcare. “Scholars deeply engaged in the learning because they were able to explore what was important to them,” says Asher. “They left the camp feeling like they could change the world.”

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