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Ideas and Solutions

A Summer of Fresh Starts

Students at Dayton Leadership Academies are getting a leg up on math and reading this summer. Just don’t call it summer school.

July 20, 2021
Laura Zingg

Laura Zingg

Editorial Project Manager, One Day Studio

Edible marshmallow constellations. Solar-powered pizza ovens. Fishing for hula hoops.

These may not be the images that immediately come to mind when picturing an intensive summer program focused on recovering math and reading skills. But after a year of Zoom screens and learning from bedrooms, couches, and kitchen tables, leaders of Dayton Leadership Academies in Ohio knew that this year’s annual summer program—known as Summer Launch—needed to feel different.

“We’re trying to get the kids to be a little bit more hands-on and involved to make them want to actually come and participate,” said Sharell Benson, the Summer Launch program director.

Dayton Leadership Academies serves students in grades K-8. Summer Launch is an annual month-long program for students who need extra academic support. Coming out of the pandemic, this year’s program focused on reestablishing relationships and routines, targeted tutoring, and helping students get reengaged with school.

Third grade students work together on a math project to learn about measurements. Jodi Miller
A kindergartener samples homemade ice cream. Jodi Miller

Targeted Instruction With a Fun Twist

In planning the Summer Launch this year, Principal Tess Mitchner Asinjo (Bay Area ’98) and her team poured over end-of-year data and identified students’ needs, both in terms of academics and social-emotional learning. Despite challenges with remote learning, students made gains this year, Asinjo said. 

“We certainly saw progress,” she said. “We just didn't see it at the same rate that we have in the past.”

This summer is a chance to close those gaps before they widen. In June, students attended school five days a week, starting their day with breakfast and time to build friendships during the morning huddle. Then each grade moved into tutoring sessions and small group instruction with breaks for lunch, recess, and physical education. While students spent the majority of their time focused on making growth in math and reading, lessons were packed with fun surprises, snacks, and a chance to get messy.

In Jenise Stanley’s third grade classroom, students worked in groups to plan a trip to outer space using new math concepts to calculate the variables of space travel. They spent lots of time outside reading on the campus’s grassy field and going on scavenger hunts for geometric shapes and words that end in “ing” and “ed.” Tina Bailey sweetened learning for her fourth graders by using Oreos to teach about the moon phases and provided different kinds of chocolate for students to sample while reading “The Chocolate Touch.”

Bailey said she was intentional about heading off any negative associations students may have about summer school. She framed the Summer Launch as an opportunity for her students to gain additional expertise they will use in the fall.

“It's basically students growing into becoming tutors so they can help their other classmates when they go to fifth grade,” Bailey said.

Fifth grade students use their desks instead of scrap paper to work out math problems Two students hold zip-lock bags used to make ice cream

Left: Fifth grade students use their desks instead of scrap paper to work out math problems and get quick feedback.

Right: During a STEM enrichment class, first grade students study how matter changes by making ice cream in plastic sandwich bags.

Jodi Miller

Fourth graders in Tina Bailey’s class test out physics concepts using toy trucks and rubber bands. Tina Bailey
A scavenger hunt for word endings takes students on a tour of their classroom and school grounds. Sharell Benson
Students make fresh-squeezed lemonade during a science enrichment activity. Jodi Miller

In addition to amping up fun learning activities, administrators expanded Summer Launch to include a kindergarten jumpstart class and bussing to help bring in additional students, using federal COVID relief funds.

Incoming kindergarteners practiced classroom routines, explored the playground, and socialized with other children—experiences that many students have missed out on during the pandemic. Families also received kindergarten readiness packets with skills students can work on over the summer.

“We want to give students a jump start because we know for several of them, their early childhood education was also interrupted over the last year,” Asinjo said.

A student sits at a desk with crayons in front of them A group of kindergarteners stand in line in a hallway

Left: Adding a kindergarten jumpstart program this summer was a priority for Principal Tess Asinjo, to help early learners get acclimated to being in school after pandemic isolation. “We know several of them, their early childhood education was interrupted,” she said.

Right: Rising kindergarteners get acquainted with their new school building and practice hallway routines.

Jodi Miller and Sharell Benson

A First Day Do-Over

This year’s Summer Launch comes after a bumpy year of starts and stops. Last August, students began the school year with remote learning and soon shifted to a hybrid model. As winter brought warnings from the public health department about a spike in COVID-19 cases, the school closed its doors again from Thanksgiving until Martin Luther King Day. Finally, the school building reopened for hybrid learning in the spring. Even when students began returning to the classroom part time, it still felt like every week they were starting over, Asinjo said.

“We would get them used to being back in school and then we wouldn't see them again until the following Wednesday. So that was a little hard,” she said.

By the end of May, the majority of students returned to school for in-person learning, five days a week. A handful of students chose to stay in remote learning through the end of the school year. After staring at tiny squares on Zoom screens, this summer, teachers met some of their remote-only students in person for the first time all year. Being together in the same room, Bailey saw her fourth graders engage on a whole new level.

“I could see their big bright faces and they could ask me questions,” Bailey said. They were more interactive. They love being around their other classmates.”

One of Bailey’s remote-only students returned for in-person learning this summer. “The smile alone shows how happy she was to be back into the classroom,” Bailey says. Sharell Benson

Bringing the Joy Back to School

On Friday afternoons, students participated in enrichment activities such as cooking classes, color guard, and stepping, a performance tradition of Black fraternities and sororities. The creek that runs alongside the school’s campus made a perfect place for outdoor exploring, fossil hunting, and fishing.

When rain dampened plans for an outdoor fishing lesson, students took their fishing poles inside and learned how to fish using hula hoops. Sharell Benson
On Friday afternoons students participate in enrichment activities, such as exploring the nearby Wolf Creek. Jodi Miller
Students learn about local habitats while exploring the outdoors. Jodi Miller
During an outdoor enrichment activity, students collected fossils and rock samples from Wolf Creek. Jodi Miller

It has been a tumultuous year, especially for students who have been remote-only for most of the year, Stanley said. “They haven't been on a regular schedule and you can definitely get into the thinking that school is boring. It's not fun, it's not engaging.” 

Summer Launch offered a chance to introduce more structure back into the school day and reestablish relationships through fun learning experiences. Being together in person over the summer has also helped strengthen classroom culture, Stanley said. She plans to incorporate elements of summer learning into her classroom in the fall such as the morning meeting and closing circle, which is when students reflect on their day and share shout-outs with classmates.

“Those two routines have really helped to establish the relationships that kids have with each other that they've missed out on throughout the last year and a half when we haven't been in school regularly,” Stanley said.

Bailey hopes this summer helps to rebuild her students’ confidence in the classroom as well as their love of learning and brings back a bit of normalcy. After an unpredictable year, students showed up every day for summer learning, which means a lot, Bailey said.  

“Just coming to school and loving to be in here shows me that students have the ‘I can do it attitude,’” she said. “I just want my students to know, you all got through this and you can get through many more things.”


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