My summer school experiences, unlike other cherished childhood memories, are not ones I revisit frequently. When searching for vestiges of that time, the images that surface in my mind are of long days inside a frigid portable classroom, a deserted campus and indifferent classmates. As a recent arrival to the US, I attended summer school to catch up to my peers. The hours ticked slowly towards our collective goal of cramming a semester’s worth of material into a few short (yet endless) weeks. Eventually, summer school helped me to catch up but did little to foster a love of learning or give me a new way of seeing the world.
When THINK Together began planning summer in Santa Ana, the program in place was much like the one I remember from my school days: a curriculum focused on core skills in English Language Arts and math, many of the students identified in need of remediation. Summer learning loss, especially for those already lagging academically, is well documented. Academic supports during those months matter greatly but just as important is how you deliver those supports. THINK Together believes that when students and their families are fully engaged in the summer experience, when learning is disguised as fun, the results add up to more than the hard-earned rewards of completed vocabulary and math worksheets.
Working closely with the schools and families we serve, THINK Together developed a new paradigm for summer learning. Our blended model incorporates a standards-based curriculum designed by schools (with input from teachers and parents) and delivered by teachers. Our staff complements classroom instruction with varied, project-based enrichment components that include a good dosage of outdoor physical activity. Our goal is to build academic skills but also to inspire a love of learning through opportunities to get your hands dirty, express ideas, get your heart racing and explore new concepts.
Last year, students who selected “Night at the Museum” as their summer theme had the opportunity to make first-hand connections between classroom learning and the mummies at the Bowers Museum. Our CATCH curriculum challenged students to engage in vigorous exercise and rewarded them with a visit to an LA Galaxy practice and lesson from pro-soccer players on health and fitness. Prior to seeing an award-winning Broadway show, students participated in workshops to help them appreciate and understand the content and work behind the production. Students also met the artists and asked questions about their performance, roles and careers.
With the Smarter Summers grant, we are replicating and expanding the blended summer learning model pioneered in Santa Ana to communities in Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. Our Super Hero Learning Adventure will provide additional project-based opportunities using a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum. Our staff will help students will apply critical thinking and problem solving skills to reinforce and extend academic concepts presented by teachers. An afternoon session may include time in the Lego robotics lab, a chance to extract DNA from an onion or a visit to the Science Center. And especially important for middle school students, our program includes an array of individual and team leadership activities designed to foster a sense of belonging – a key marker in the path to healthy youth development.
Years after my summer school experience, I got my hands on cool equipment and tested Newton’s Laws by building a rocket during my high school physics class. In the process, I began to seriously consider a career in science and went on to pursue an engineering degree (thank you Mr. Jones!). THINK Together’s blended model does more than build core skills. It ignites the imagination and gives children hands-on experiences that open new paths to learning. When asked what he learned during summer, one of our 5th grade students told us “What I learned about is planes, reading and more. This week Ms. Torre showed us a plane that we could make. We learned that a plane has 7 parts. It has a wingtips, rudder, propellers, wings, fuselage, body, elevators and motor. We also learned about space. We also learned dance new moves and great tips.” Years from now, she may have summer school to thank for her career in aerospace.