Hundreds of Schenectady students spent a month of the summer in school, at the pool and on the tennis courts as part of the district's annual summer program.
For some students, the 10-hour days flew by.
"It felt like the summer was faster," said Blake Simmons, 10, a Yates Elementary fifth grader, who counted down days over the summer until a trip planned to Universal Studios in Florida. "It felt like three days."
Without the summer program, Odessa Carter, 10, also a Yates student, said she would have spent the summer watching Netflix or drawing or painting her nails - maybe all three.
"(I would have) learned less, learned nothing," she said.
The majority of students in the summer program made improvements in reading during the four-week program. A smaller share of students in kindergarten, second, third and sixth grades who participated in the summer program regressed more in literacy over the entire summer than those who who did not attend the program, even though the students selected to participate in the summer sessions struggled more during the previous academic year.
Still, a significant number of students who showed literacy improvement during the four-week summer enrichment program in Schenectady schools saw those gains wiped out in the month before school started.
District officials shared the data finding with the school board earlier this month, highlighting the challenges of keeping student learning apace over the summer when a dearth of academic opportunities can cause youngsters to regress in key academic skills.
In its third year, the district served more than 1,300 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade during a four-week-long summer enrichment program hosted at eight sites across the district in July.
During those four weeks, 60 percent of students saw an increase in their reading achievement, according to a data analysis conducted by the district. However, by the start of this school year, 17 percent of the program's students who'd made gains ended up regressing farther behind where they had finished at the end of last academic year in June.
Put simply, nearly a fifth of the program’s students saw all of the reading gains they made during the summer program wiped away in the month between the end of the program and the start of the new school year.
After the meeting, Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring said he was a bit surprised by how fragile the gains seemed to be. He said the goal of the summer enrichment program, which is targeted to the district’s most struggling students, is to keep students from regressing during the summer. That students were showing improvement was a positive sign, Spring said, but that many students lost those academic gains by the start of school signaled the difficulty of keeping students on track from year to year.
“I had kind of thought that four weeks during the summer is a heavy dosage [of daily reading instruction],” Spring said after the meeting. “In just the remaining four weeks [of summer], that kids could regress that much, it highlights for me just how fragile those building blocks are.”
The challenges are a real-life example of the "summer slide," a deeply researched topic which shows that students, especially low-income students, regress academically over the summer, widening learning gaps as wealthier students continue to see improvement thanks to camps, travel and other activities to which not all kids have access.
The summer program isn't just about reading. Kids enjoy swimming and tennis lessons, and other outdoor activities; students organize service projects; and teachers develop new classroom units designed around engaging students in larger projects.
In interviews about the summer program, students at Keane and Yates elementary school highlighted the various computer-based learning programs that embedded reading, math and science lessons into games and challenges the students said they enjoyed. During the summer, students have more access to district laptops which are more limited when all students are in school.
They said they liked the arts and crafts and the weekly visits to Central Park, where students received swim and tennis lessons. The students said there were some things from the summer they wish they would see more of during the regular school year.
"I think that they should do more fun stuff," said 10-year-old Eliza Shahabuddeen, a fifth grader at Keane. She said learning how to make slime - it takes glue, saltwater and food coloring - was her favorite part of the summer.
The district utilized new and existing partnerships with community organizations. The program is designed to offer students a school day that feels more fun and less traditionally academic.
"It's those opportunities that we can really tap into kids' natural curiosity and really build their confidence as learners," Sara Schneller, school improvement coordinator for the district and a leader of the summer program, said during the school board presentation.
At the end of the program, teachers asked children to reflect on what they liked most about it -- what they wouldn't want to change.
"My favorite part of the summer enrichment program is using the Chromebook," one student wrote. "I like this because it helps my reading. Please don't change that."
During the presentation about the summer program, board members discussed options for expanding the program in the coming years, pointing to a district finding on "summer slide" as evidence that the length of the summer session should be extended. District officials have also long expressed a desire to increase the number of the students in the program.
“This would suggest, actually, [that] we should look at an extension of time,” board member Andy Chestnut said.
But next summer the district will be limited in its ability to expand the program in length or number of kids, as ongoing capital project work will consume space in numerous buildings and each building also needs time to be cleaned thoroughly from top to bottom. Spring also highlighted the state's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall and said budget cuts could have an impact on what next summer's program looks like.
“I’m having a hard time seeing us expand either in volume of kids or length of time,” Spring said after the meeting.
He said he wasn’t ruling out “creative options” to expand the program, and at the meeting he suggested the district could eventually run two summer sessions, with some students taking advantage of both.
“This finding [on student literacy] is going to have us problem-solving for a while,” Spring said.
Students interviewed for this story mostly said they would be interested in returning to the summer program next year too, highlighting the wide range of activities and chance to spend time with friends.
"I think if you stay home and just go to summer camp, it would be more boring," said Eliza, a Keane student. "You don't have anything to do."
Back to reading: students were also give a chance to pick out books they wanted to take home. Miranda Rosa, 10, also a Keane student, said she and many of her classmates picked out Click, a graphic novel about a fifth grade girl left without a group for a school talent show who has to pull together a solo comedy routine. So why did Miranda and many of her classmates pick out Click to take home?
"We wanted to know what happened," she said.