Archive for the ‘Summer School’ Category


Summer school is no longer just a make-up exercise for high school students short a few credit courses or looking to raise their final grade averages. Over the past two years, it’s gradually been expanded in Ontario and elsewhere into the elementary grades. Students as young as 6 years of age and up to age 13 have been enrolled in “summer school programs” aimed ostensibly at closing the learning gaps from Grades 1 to 8 identified since March 2020 as a result of some 22 to 27 weeks of school closures and disrupted learning.

Studies originating in the United States, Britain and the European Union have alerted us to the damage inflicted in terms of learning loss as well as psycho-social after-affects, especially for those already struggling in school or from marginalized communities.  A University of Alberta study conducted by Dr. George Georgiou found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in the Edmonton area performed, on average, eight months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks by the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Similarly, Grade 6 student assessment results in 2021-22 in Nova Scotia, for example, showed fewer students met expectations in reading, writing and math compared with pre-pandemic assessments.

A recent feature focusing on elementary summer school in the Ontario Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), produced by The Globe and Mail’s education reporter, Caroline Alphonso, generated some hope. Based upon Grade 1 to 3 summer school classes at Wilfrid Jury Public School in the City of London, Ontario, she saw first hand evidence that younger students were gaining in basic skills and confidence through exercises focused early reading, writing and mathematics.

Summer school programs in the TVDSB were targeted where they were most needed and would do the most good. Teachers, according to Superintendent Marion Moynihan, connected with families of students who were working at a Level 2 or lower (below provincial standards) and invited them to enroll their children in the program. It was explicitly designed to focus on literacy and numeracy and to counter the effect of the typical 9-week-long summer slide in learning.  

Students in Grades 1 to 3, from province-to-province, have only experienced school during times of pandemic disruption. Three-to-four-week programs may be short, but they are beginning to address the learning shortfalls. Rather than attempting to work miracles, Grade 1 teacher Erica Payne was realistic in her expectations. School readiness for September 2022 was the overriding priority, but little-by-little the gaps were being closed in those critical early grades.

So far, so good, but not every elementary school summer program, it appears, fit that description. Most such programs fly below the radar, but one offered by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) attracted considerable attention because it tacked completely in another direction. Judging from the Twitter posts of Vanessa Lau, a TDSB LO teacher, the Grade 3 program at Lynnwood Heights Public School, offered “a wonderful 4 weeks of creativity, problem-solving and learning.”

Parents at this TDSB expecting a ‘catch-up’ program in reading, mathematics and science likely got a surprise.  What their children experienced in this TDSB-funded Continuing Education program was a shortened version of the usual pre-pandemic curriculum with considerable emphasis on equity and anti-racism.

Novice teachers like Ms. Lau tend to reflect prevailing education school trends and are often eager to please program supervisors and board consultants. That may explain the program philosophy and pedagogy. In this case, the Grade 3 program began with a lesson on skin colour and where it comes from, and included activities designed to raise awareness of racism and promote social justice. It did, in fairness, also include a rather ingenious and ambitious STEM project where students were expected to design a playground and at least two structures.

Critics on social media seized on Vanessa Lau’s regular Twitter posts and saw her little elementary school program as another example of “woke education” promulgated by the TDSB. While that’s an unfair characterization, and one devaluing her professional choices, the Lynnwood PS program was out-of-sync with broader provincial policy designed to close fundamental knowledge and skill gaps and get pandemic generation children back-on-track.


Pandemic learning recovery programs are finally beginning to surface.  In late July 2022, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the Plan to Catch Up. Schools will stay open in 2022-23, if at all possible. The plan not only includes a return to in-person learning, but a commitment to restoring extracurricular activities like sports and field trips. It aligns with previously-announced plans for a large-scale tutoring program, enhanced summer learning, and improved mental health supports for students who are returning to classrooms.

Revamping summer school is a relatively small piece of the overall provincial strategy. While the most vocal leaders of Ontario teacher unions are skeptical of anything coming out of the Ontario PC government of Doug Ford, regional superintendents and researchers specializing in education research and child mental health are reasonably supportive of a broad educational recovery plan.

Lakehead Public Schools director of education Ian MacRae is fairly typical of the general response. “It’s not something new. It’s what we have been suggesting all the way through COVID, that it’s extremely important that kids get back in the classroom, and that supports are in place to provide students with the best opportunities to be successful once they do return to normal learning situations.”

Why did it take so long to prepare and implement Summer School programs for elementary school students adversely affected by pandemic learning loss? What is accomplished if such programs eschew intensive instruction in literacy and numeracy and default to pre-pandemic ‘student well-being’ and ‘social justice’ programs?  Will the emerging learning recovery programs be equal to the challenge?


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The dog days of mid-summer are upon us and the usual stories are appearing about the chronic issue of Summer Learning Slide for students of all ages.  Canadian education blogger Andrew Campbell recently aptly described it as “the annual hand wringing over Summer Learning Loss.”  His analysis of the situation is deadly accurate: It’s  something people complain about but little changes. The issue’s been around for over 30 years and along the way developed it’s own cottage industry with guidebooks,  a national Summer Learning PD conference, and a well funded TD Bank Summer Reading Club.

SummerReadingToday’s parents are targeted with ads and articles warning them not to let their children ‘waste’ their summer.  Many Canadian independent schools and some public schools get in on the act as they send students off with summer reading lists to prepare them for next year’s curriculum. For some reason, that’s where most public school educators draw the line.  It’s as if the summer was sacrosanct and essentially a “no schoolwork zone.”  Indeed, the whole summer is left to summer camp operators and enterprising educators who offer very stimulating private, for profit, study skills or learning discovery camps.

Much of the perennial public debate is consumed by promoters of  Year Round Schools and never gets to the nub of the matter.  If  Year Round schooling is a non-starter, let’s focus on more achievable alternatives. Why not, for example, consider the merits of providing greatly improved, publicly-funded, guided summer study programs, sparking student engagement in reading, mathematics, science, and creative discovery.

Summer Learning Loss is real, not imagined, and it affects student academic performance.   Simply put, it’s the loss of academic skills and knowledge over summer vacation. It’s measured by testing students in math and reading before they leave for summer vacation, retesting them after vacation and comparing the scores. A Fall 1996 literature review summarizing 39 studies found that, on average, students lose about a month of learning skills and knowledge each summer. By graduation an average student has lost about a year of progress due to Summer Learning Loss.

Students experience the most severe Learning Loss in cumulative subjects. Mathematics loss is greatest, with an equivalent of 2.6 months of math progress lost each summer or two and a half years by graduation. Loss in reading scores varies by socioeconomic status as students from low-income families lose about 2 months of reading progress each summer, while students from middle-income families actually gain. Over the years, the cumulative effect of the difference in summer experiences between low and middle-income families begins to have an impact. It becomes a is a major contributor to the widening  achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic status.

Summer camp entrepreneurs have been very savvy in identifying the need and in incorporating summer learning programs into their range of program options. Affluent parents raising children to be “university bound” see the Summer Learning Loss as a challenge to be overcome and have the resources to minimize its impact on their children.  It’s truly ironic that such families are more concerned than others about  children are falling behind in their learning over those idle, zoned-out, electronic-game dominated summer months.

High cost summer camps or family excursions with edutainment value may not be what explains the difference between the learning retention of middle and lower income students.  A recent study by McMaster University researcher Scott Davies reported that middle income students spend the summer with adults who read to them and use adult vocabulary in conversations. “It’s the daily conversations that are sophisticated and expand children’s vocabularies, and being read to regularly by seasoned readers, one-on-one. This informal role-modeling is available to affluent children seven days per week. Less advantaged children, in contrast, have less constant exposure to those quality resources.”

Guided summer study and reading programs can help to arrest and even reverse  Summer Learning Loss. Dr. Davies led a pilot project that targeted struggling low-income readers in Ontario with summer literacy camps. These 2-3 week camps provided the exposure these students were previously missing and in response, rather than losing reading skills they improved by one and a half months.

Growing numbers of American educators are stepping into the breach and addressing Summer Learning Loss.  California educator Larry Ferlazzo, for example, now provides summer courses online providing what amounts to a virtual summer school for his students. After watching his high school district summer school numbers drop from thousands to only four classes, he took steps to bridge the learning gap for his high school students. That’s being pro-active.

Given the mounting research on Summer Learning Loss, educational policy-makers would be well-advised to focus more of their attention on minimizing its impact upon student achievement.  Provincial and state governments spend millions on school improvement initiatives, including professional development, standardized testing and  the IT latest resources, all focused on closing the “achievement gap” over 10 months of the year. What if… some of those resources were invested in developing and offering summer study and reading programs, teacher-guided and online, to address the summertime loss of student knowledge and skills.

Why has the problem of Summer Learning Loss proven so difficult to address in public education systems?  With the rise of virtual schools and online learning, why do the summer months remain essentially “dead zones” for school system extended learning initiatives?  Given the resistance to Year Round Schools, why not put more of  our energies and resources into providing more accessible publicly-funded guided summer study programs?


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Going to Summer School used to be the expected fate of Canadian high school students who either failed or performed poorly in academic credit courses.  In the old days, summer school functioned as a kind of purgatory for struggling students and for “slackers” who drifted through high school.  A recent Toronto Globe and Mail news feature, “Are kids failing at summer?” (July 7, 2012), unearthed new data from school boards in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario demonstrating that it’s now become a haven for “anxious students aiming for higher grades.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/are-kids-failing-at-summer/article4397211/?page=all

Typical of the new breed of Summer School students is Chris Stojanovski, a 90% Whitby, Ontario student, who has completed Grade 10 and is currently taking Grade 11 English this summer.  While his fellow students lined-up for a matinee showing of  The Amazing Spiderman, Chris could be found hunched over his desk in a stark flourescent lit classroom studying literary devices in Robert Burns’ A Red, Red Rose.  He’s back in class to get a head start on Grade 11 and it was his decision.

Summer School has certainly changed in recent years. High achieving students are gradually replacing struggling students in the traditional five-week high school credit course programs.  For a variety of reasons, they are choosing to forgo that first job, roaming shopping malls, and summer camp to “reach forward” and capitalize on opportunities to raise their marks.  Academic upgrading and credit recovery are becoming a thing of the past and it is time to ask why.

Summer School student enrolment is growing at a time when fewer and fewer students are actually failing courses from Grades 7 to 12 in Canadian schools. Over the past five years, B.C. summer school enrolment has increased from 1,165 to 46,666, a 40-fold increase.  Some 85% of Summer School students in the York Region District School Board are now taking courses for the first time rather than seeking academic upgrading.  Similar trends have been identified in the Calgary Public School Board and in the Durham District Board, just east of Toronto.

Some Canadian school boards still operate under the old principles while implementing “no fail” student assessment policies.  The Halifax Regional School Board, for example, with 16 junior and senior high schools and 49,500 students, continues to run a Summer School at one location, offering  Grade 7 to 12 five-week courses in only Mathematics and Language Arts/English. It’s a shrunken down traditional program running week days from July 5 to August 8 and scheduled for 8:30 am until 1 pm.  Students grades are “entirely based on course assessment during summer school.”  http://www.hrsb.ns.ca/content/id/953.html

Mark inflation, rising student attainment levels, and “no fail’ student assessment policies have radically reduced the traditional market for Summer School programs — struggling students who might benefit from upgrading in weak subjects.  Failing subjects is becoming rarer and Statistics Canada (2009) reports that  86.7% of young Canadians ages 25 to 29 now have high school graduation diplomas. Eliminating any sign of failure in schools has a way of reducing the need for high school credit recovery programs.

Three years ago, Ontario high school teachers complained about the spread of “no fail” policies, linking such policies to provincially-set targets to raise graduation rates.  Deputy education minister Dr. Ben Levin responded with a four-page memo defending the system. When Toronto Sun columnist Moira MacDonald  interviewed him, Levin, who is quite influential in Canadian education circles, claimed that, although students shouldn’t be given marks they did not earn, he believed students were also “demotivated” by failure. http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/moira_macdonald/2009/05/19/9496746-sun.html

“No fail” policies appeal to students and parents but they raise the ire of many teachers.  High school teachers have coined terms such as “pseudo-credits” and “credit lite” to describe new alternative learning courses such as “credit recovery” catering to students at risk of dropping out. Fewer students are falling through the cracks, but it’s getting harder and harder to fail a course and repeating a grade is now next to impossible.  Once limited to elected or optional high school courses, “social promotion” is now common, even in Mathematics, Science, and English courses.

Some 5,000 citizens, mostly high school teachers, signed an online petition in April 2009 registering opposition to the province’s “no failure” policy with regard to high school students. ( http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/evaluation)  Students who miss tests because they skip class or even cheat on a test cannot be marked “zero” but instead must be given another chance.  Teachers in the Toronto region have also complained that the pressure to graduate more students has created a boon in students marching off to private school “credit factories”  to pick up credits in subjects they might barely scratch through at public school.

Edmonton high school physics teacher, Lynden Dorval, has become a hero for defending high school marking standards.  He simply refused to implement his school’s “no zero” policy and, after 35 years of teaching, is now facing dismissal for his actions.  He wasn’t even handing out zeros for poor work. His “radical” move was doling out zero for work not done at all, or skipped tests — after students were given chances to make them up.  Even though his Senior Physics course was an IB Diploma course expected to adhere to rigorous international standards, it didn’t matter to his principal who insisted that he code the work as “unable to assess” and assign grades based only on work a student actually completed. http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/moira_macdonald/2009/05/19/9496746-sun.html

Today’s high schools focus on raising student attainment levels, seeking to sustain higher graduation rates.  Summer Schools for struggling students are acquiring a new mandate — supporting highly motivated, academically able students to “reach ahead” and secure higher grades for university admissions purposes.  “Failure” is now a dirty word in school, and so damaging to student self-esteem, that it is to be avoided through social promotion. That is why traditional Summer Schools are dying on the vine.

What’s happening to Summer Schools across Canada?  Why are student enrolments rising in academic acceleration courses?  What has caused the decline in academic credit course offerings catering to struggling academic students?  How have mark inflation and “no failure” policies impacted upon Canadian summer school enrolments?

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