More than 1,300 Schenectady youngsters will head back to school on Monday. The month that follows will be packed with new lessons, long days and outdoor play.
In its third year, Schenectady City School District’s Summer Enrichment Program this month will mark a new record in student participation and expand to the district’s three middle schools and the high schools. Entering kindergartners will be welcomed to the program for the first time, too.
Noureya Morris, 5, who will start kindergarten in the fall, visited her summer classroom Wednesday, meeting her teacher, Amber Pasquerella, during an orientation day.
“I don’t know,” said Noureya, when asked what she likes most about school. After giving it a second thought, she had some ideas. “I like drawing pictures, even I like playing with the sand. You can keep the sand, the sand is so fun.”
Noureya showed Pasquerella how she can write her name and giddily accepted a high-five from her new teacher as her mother looked on.
“This is definitely a big help… to keep the knowledge there,” said Brykia Armstrong, Noureya’s mother. “It keeps her motivated and engaged in school.”
But at least one big thing was missing at Noureya’s orientation visit, where she had her teacher and classroom to herself.
“I’m excited,” Noureya said. “But I want my new friends to come.”
The district received more than 1,500 applications for the program this spring, accepting just over 1,300 students and establishing a wait list of about 200 students. The summer program classes start Monday, with the 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. days running through Aug. 2.
The program this summer is also expanding to serve new grade levels.
In addition to four elementary sites, all three middle schools will be hosting students this summer and so will the high school. Students leaving pre-kindergarten up to students headed to their freshmen year in high school have been eligible.
By moving the program into the higher grades and school buildings, students will have a chance to spend a month of the summer getting acquainted with the schools they will enter for the first time in September.
“In middle school we have fifth graders moving into sixth, and they have four weeks to get to know their new buildings and start to build community,” said Sara Schneller, the district’s school improvement supervisor and the main organizer behind the summer program. “It’s the same thing with ninth graders.”
During the school year, a group of teachers developed new curriculum units to use over the summer. The units employ what’s called “project-based learning,” where students are given an overarching problem or mission and then spend weeks building something to solve that problem, learning about a variety of subjects along the way. The approach aims to better engage and interest students in what they are learning.
Third grade students, for example, will work with community members in the city’s Goose Hill to help design wraps that will go around trash cans, joining the neighborhood’s beautification efforts. Before designing the wraps, though, the students will learn about what makes a thriving neighborhood and how student can improve their own communities.
Fourth graders will similarly dive into Schenectady civic life, helping to create a marketing campaign to attract tourists to city, creating videos or 3-D displays that show the dining and cultural options in the city.
Students this summer will also spend more time outside and in the community. The district will maintain weekly swim lessons, a popular day in previous years. But there are also plans to add visits to Central Park and other field trips throughout the city. Third and fourth graders will visit Central Park each week to rotate between swim lessons, tennis lessons – new this year – and environmental lessons with ECOS, a community group that works on youth environmental education, enjoying lunch while at the park as well.
“We’ve really tried to get ourselves more into the community,” Schneller said.
The district staffs the summer program using both Schenectady teachers and teachers from outside the district, some of whom are looking to land a job in the city school district. The site leader positions at the various summer program locations also serve as a chance for educators interested in shifting to administration to get a taste of what goes into managing a school.
Teachers have said they enjoy the smaller class sizes in the summer program – between 12 and 15 students – and the chance to try out lessons and other creative teaching strategies that are harder to deploy during the school year. Some of those lesson will find their way into classroom during the regular part of the year.
Heidi Shults-Estrada, a Schenectady teacher who worked on developing the new curriculum for this summer, said during the past school year in her regular classroom she started using the kind of project-based lessons practiced last summer.
“My kids definitely walked away knowing much more,” said Shults-Estrada of the project-based approach. “You’re presenting genuine problems for them to solve and discover – it’s deeper learning and much more of an investment for them.”
A look back – and forward
At a school board meeting this spring, district officials highlighted data based on students who participated in last year’s summer program that suggested those students attended class at higher rates and performed better on internal literacy assessments.
The students who participated in last year’s summer program also registered fewer course failures than they had the previous year – a key measure of students the district tracks throughout the school year.
“That’s a nice move at the elementary level,” Superintendent Larry Spring said at the June 5 board meeting of the improvement in course failures. “That’s a pretty good chunk of kids staying engaged in school who weren’t before.”
Spring has said his goal is to continue to grow the summer program each year, eventually offering the option to participate to every family in the district's primary grades.
As the program expands, district officials will need to work out logistics of housing students when buildings customarily receive thorough cleanings or come off-line for construction work.
But district officials see the summer program as a natural extension of efforts to improve academic outcomes during the school year, offering students a chance to at least maintain the learning they did during the previous year and to set themselves up for a quick and smooth transition into the next grade.
“They see us September through June. Now, they will see us all year long,” said Vincent Jones, who works as a classroom assistant and parent liasion at Hamilton Elementary during the school year and will be working as a classroom assistant this summer.
Jones, whose own kids will go through the summer program this year, said the summer program gives students and teachers a chance to keep from spending too much time in the fall retracing lessons from the previous year – lessons that have typically faded over the summer.
“For a lot of kids, in summertime the learning stops. Then, we spend half of the year getting them back,” Jones said.