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Dorian Cole hands out ice cream to children.
Ideas and Solutions

Summer Programs Are Helping Students Turn the Page on COVID-19

Communities are looking to summer learning programs to help prepare students for life after the pandemic.

July 27, 2021
Jess Fregni

Jessica Fregni

Writer-Editor, One Day

Nate Smallwood


"Raise your hand if you want vanilla or chocolate!”

Cheers erupted around the classroom at Faison Academy K-5 as 15-year-old Dorian Cole handed small cups of ice cream to second and third graders who were waving their arms in the air.

Cole was busy wheeling carts of ice cream to classrooms full of eager children, but delivering treats is far from his only responsibility at the school. He is taking advantage of a partnership between Summer BOOST, Pittsburgh Public School’s new summer enrichment program, and Learn & Earn, which connects students in Allegheny County with paid work-based learning opportunities.

Faison Academy K-5 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Dorian Cole is working this summer. Nate Smallwood
Dorian Cole is enjoying his time helping out the students and teachers at Summer BOOST. He hopes to continue helping his community as an engineer one day. Nate Smallwood
Dorian assembles cups of ice cream to hand out to students. Dorian delivers ice cream. Dorian hands out ice cream. Dorian hands out more ice cream to children.

Dorian Cole delivers treats to classrooms of students attending Summer BOOST. The teachers at Faison Academy have grown to rely on Cole and the other students helping out through Learn & Earn.

Nate Smallwood

Since the start of July, Cole has spent his time at Summer BOOST helping the teachers with classroom duties and assisting students with their work. Attentive to detail and always willing to pitch in, teachers say Cole has already become a valued member of the Faison team. Cole is hoping that this real-world career experience will help him on his path to pursuing a career in engineering.

Cole’s experience is not typical for summer school. But that’s the idea. 

“Historically, summer school has been viewed as a punishment. Something that you are forced to go to. It was remedial,” said Aaron Dworkin, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association

Now, schools across the country are taking a different approach in order to help students push through the ongoing pandemic and prepare for a new academic year. They also have an unprecedented influx of funding through the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. 

Summer BOOST, which more than 2,000 Pittsburgh Public School students are attending this year, is just one example of the types of innovative summer learning programs that schools and community partners have newly designed to support students after this challenging year.

“We want kids to come out of the program feeling better about themselves, number one socially and emotionally, but academically as well,” said Anthony Hamlet, the superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. “We’ve gone through something traumatic over the course of this particular year, and so we’re looking at the holistic needs of children and balancing that with the academics.”

A student walks the halls of Obama Academy, one of the Summer BOOST sites. Nate Smallwood

Across the country, these summer programs are helping students turn the page on COVID-19—whether it’s helping students develop the academic and social-emotional skills they need to confidently resume in-person classes in the fall or helping them prepare for life after high school.

For 15-year-old Mo Longo, being back among his peers at Summer BOOST’s Obama Academy site felt “almost alien” after being remote for so long. The summer learning program is a place to collect his thoughts and get ready for next year. 

“It provides a good environment for me to kind of get back into the motion of hanging out with people who aren't my family,” Longo said.

Mo Longo (right) fistbumps a fellow student while waiting for Summer BOOST to begin for the day. Nate Smallwood

Like Longo, many of the students attending Summer BOOST had not been inside a classroom with their peers since before the pandemic. For these students, spending time with classmates and processing the pandemic is just as important for preparing for in-person school in the fall as catching up on math and reading.

For middle and high school students attending Summer BOOST, mornings start with breakfast, followed by dedicated time for academic support and social-emotional learning.

A teacher leads a lesson on To Kill A Mockingbird. A teacher leads a lesson on Neil DeGrasse Tyson Student reading a book. A sheet of math exercises.

Top Left: Teacher David Mathews leads a lesson on "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Top Right: Mathews discusses the themes of "To Fly" by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Botton Left: A student turns the page of a book during independent reading time.

Bottom Right: Math exercises on a page at Summer BOOST.

Nate Smallwood

At Summer BOOST, educators are using social-emotional learning to teach students about important skills like resilience. Nate Smallwood

Sometimes academics and SEL are intertwined. One educator used an upcoming group science project to ask students their thoughts about group dynamics and working collaboratively with others. 

“Being aware of each other’s emotions, paying attention, and making sure everyone is incorporated in what we’re doing,” replied Qusiemah Brown, who is 17. “That’s the most important part.”

It’s an especially relevant lesson for students readjusting to collaborative work after months of remote learning.

For 16-year-old Ryan Harrison, being around peers at Summer BOOST was essential for “getting back into the swing of things.” Harrison had just enjoyed a morning discussing current events with his classmates, including the protests in Cuba. It was a safe space to have healthy debates with students his age. It helps that there’s a reward system at Summer BOOST, Harrison said, which “teaches kids to be nice to each other.”

“I feel like if I hadn't gone to Summer BOOST, going back to school would be a huge shock, anxiety and all that.”

Social isolation wasn’t the only challenge students experienced during COVID-19 lockdowns. During the pandemic, some high school students had to help their families make ends meet by taking part-time jobs—sometimes logging in for remote learning and working at fast-food restaurants or other businesses at the same time. 

“A good percentage of low-income families have been heavily affected by the pandemic, whether it's food, housing, income,” said Adam Andrawes, 16, a student who saw firsthand the toll that the pandemic took on students in his community. 

For Ryan Harrison, Summer BOOST has been an integral part of getting mentally, emotionally, and academically prepared for in-person school in the fall. Nate Smallwood
Adam Andrawes has spent his summer at Carlow University in Pittsburgh taking college-level classes. Nate Smallwood

But this summer, Andrawes and his peers have been able to focus on a brighter future all while earning money at Summer High School U, a summer program developed through partnerships with the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, Learn & Earn, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and other organizations. 

Students in the program are paid to take first-year college courses at campuses in Pittsburgh. They earn $7.25 an hour for both their time attending college and for their time working at their worksite placement. Students also earn transferable college credits for the classes they complete, making college more affordable. 

“I think it's a very innovative program that should be, in my opinion, spread nationwide, especially to low-income communities,” Andrawes said.

Adam Andrawes and other Pittsburgh Public School students spend time after class watching a Khan Academy video on statistics.

Having a taste of the college experience through Summer High School U has given Ciara Gordon, 18, a lot to look forward to this fall—especially after a less than ideal end of high school. She spent half of her junior year and her entire senior year learning remotely.

The program caters to students from low-income communities and students of color who may not have considered going to college, said Deb Smallwood, a program coordinator for the Neighborhood Learning Alliance. “The idea was to give them the opportunity to take a college class while still in high school to show them that this is something that they could do.”

The program is far from easy. “The professors don't scale back on the syllabus and, of course, the curriculum at all,” Smallwood said. “The kids are amazing. It's great to watch and to see them grow."

Spending time on Carlow University camping is helping Ciara Gordon prepare for her first year of college in the fall. Her goal is to become a pediatrician or pediatric oncologist. Nate Smallwood
A sign in front of Carlow University Deb Smallwood stands by a window smiling. Brett Searcy stands in front of a bannister. Meredith Erye stands in front of her biological lab.

Top Left: Students attending Summer High School U take college classes at Carlow University and other campuses in Pittsburgh.

Top Right: Deb Smallwood, a program coordinator for the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, plays an important role in helping to make sure students have what they need to be successful at Summer High School U.

Bottom Left: Brett Searcy, 22, is a tutor at Summer High School U.

Bottom Right: Meredith Eyre, a biology lab instructor at Carlow University, waits for her Summer High School U students to complete a biology exam.

Guillermo Harris is attending Summer High School U to earn transferrable college credits and gain relevant work experience in animation and video game design. Nate Smallwood

This confidence-boosting exposure can make all of the difference in a student’s trajectory. But Summer High School U also opens doors by eliminating the common barriers to entry that prevent students from taking advantage of these innovative summer programs in the first place.

Summer High School U doesn’t just cover the cost of the college classes, it also provides textbooks and a weekly bus pass for each student.

“They give us so many opportunities,” said Guillermo Harris, 17, who is pursuing a career in animation and video game design. “Not just the class, not just the worksite, but they also give us transportation. They just make it so that all we have to worry about is our class and our worksite.” 

“It's so important,” he added. “I just really appreciate it."

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