Portland-area summer learning programs try novel approaches to spark teens’ curiosity, fondness for school

With summer programs for high school students in full swing across the metro area, many school districts have shifted their focus to try to spark curiosity and spur students who’ve fallen behind to gain a passion for learning.

At the North Clackamas, Beaverton and Portland school districts in particular, there are plentiful opportunities to explore new interests as well as earn credits missed in previous school years. Students are earning credits in coursework ranging from core topics such as English and math to more technical skills like radio broadcasting and computer information.

In Beaverton, to plan for summer classes, “We look at who hasn’t enjoyed coming to class. How do you make this something that makes them curious again?” Kacey Farrens, the district’s summer school program coordinator, said. With offerings that teach, for instance, physics principles via throws of a football, students ”go deeper into the content than they’ve ever been able to in a general science class,” she said.

Following nearly two years of COVID-caused disruption to in-person instruction, districts are taking advantage of state-funded grants to provide additional instruction time for more of those who need and want it.

At North Clackamas, around 500 students are enrolled in summer school programs, according to Aeylin Summers, the district’s summer program coordinator. That’s about 8% of the district’s approximately 6,000 high school students.

Summers said programs are split between credit recovery, career and technical education and a specialized high-level math program offered at Rex Putnam High.

North Clackamas just wrapped up the first week of its second and final two-week session. Each session offers students 30 hours of classroom time, or approximately an extra month of instruction.

Around 70% of courses will result in a letter grade, which translates to credits toward graduation.

“These programs are an opportunity to explore things in a very focused environment,” Summers said. “The practical side of it is that it provides students with the current of hope, not just in recovering credits but in hope to decide that they do like school, that they do like learning.”

Summers said the district’s programming aims to remove the stereotype that summer school is just for students who showed a lack of motivation, particularly following the disruption of the pandemic. She said the profiles of kids taking advantage of summer opportunities spans GPAs and transcripts, from poor to excellent.

“I like that adaptation, and it’s pretty delightful to see kids recognizing this opportunity and grabbing on,” she said. “They understand that if they’re willing to come in July, to work hard, they can get this grade on their transcript and dig themselves out from a year where they might have lost their way.”

But just as many North Clackamas students are enrolled in courses to advance their understanding of topics they’re deeply interested in, Summers said. For example, one course offers students the chance to formulate and record their own podcasts that are then broadcasted in the hallways of buildings throughout the district. Another course offered helps students build the skills to create their own websites, while others are trying their hand at culinary arts.

In 2021, high school students in North Clackamas earned a total of 1,082 credit hours during two sessions of summer school, the second highest number of credit hours earned just behind Beaverton at 1,108. Both districts hope to replicate that success in 2022.

Three teenagers sit at a desk, where colorful blocks are arranged on the surface in front of them

Summer school is meant to help students laugh and bond as well as gain academic skills, after the pandemic hurt many students’ social emotional growth and engagement with school. Julian Ramirez Cruz, left, Alexia Braden and Emil Fabris took part in this summer ‘s learning opportunity at Beaverton High. Dave Killen / The Oregonian

A focus on shifting the stereotype around summer school is also a component of Beaverton School District’s programming, said Farrens, the summer programs coordinator.

One course teaches science through sports: Students learn physics by studying the propulsion of throwing different objects such as a football or discus. Other students at Beaverton schools are learning about propulsion and aerodynamics through rocket science.

Farrens said that in figuring out what classes the district will offer each year, administrators and teachers try to ensure programming gives students a “more than” experience, in which education goes beyond what they’d typically learn in a classroom.

That provides teachers with space to be creative, and for them to have their “cup filled” and choose to do things in a way that expresses their passion, Farrens said.

Another crucial component of Beaverton’s summer programming is helping students deal with factors outside of school affecting their performance.

According to Farrens, just as much thought as educators put into offering courses that spark teens’ imagination goes into providing enough counselors, social workers, bilingual facilitators to help stabilize a student’s educational experience. Those support staffers work with whole families as well as the high school students.

“We recognize that students who aren’t earning credit, it’s not because they’re not bright,” she said. “There are things in their life that are preventing them from being able to access either school itself or their higher mind, so we want to eliminate those barriers.”

At Portland Public Schools, the district’s Leap Into 9th Grade program attempts to remove those types of barriers in advance of a student entering high school.

The transitional program lets eighth grade students connect with peers and high school staff — teachers, counselors, administrators and other adults — before they start the new school. Students get to explore their high school in a low-pressure environment through activities such as scavenger hunts and practicing opening a locker.

Three teenagers and their teacher sit at or stand next to a desk, where colorful blocks are arranged on the surface in front of them

Organizers of Portland-area summer school programs for high school students set out to establish that fun and school could fit into an overlapping ven diagram. At Beaverton High, shown from left to right at near table, Brooks Colclazier, Nevaeh Villa- Hernandez, chemistry teacher Kaylee White and Axel Torres worked on a shared project.Dave Killen / The Oregonian

According to media relations coordinator Sydney Kelly, the district plans to examine quantitative data on how these types of programs impact student success.

“Initial information shows that students do appreciate the chance to get ahead,” Kelly said. The school board set an official goal of ensuring students become “compassionate critical thinkers, collaborators, and problem solvers who will be prepared to lead a more socially just world,” she said. “We feel strongly that our Leap Program supports this goal.”

Approximately 1,300 Portland high school students earned more than 600 credit hours in summer programs in 2021. According to Kelly, around 430 are participating in the middle-to-high school transition program this year. Hundreds more are taking credit recovery and educational advancement courses at campuses throughout the district.

The Legislature allocated $150 million for schools to offer summer catch-up and enrichment programs this summer, and the federal government allowed schools to use a share of the nearly $2 billion in pandemic aid for schools over three years to be used for summer offerings as well.

In 2021, the Legislature put $200 million towards summer programming, and 25,687 high school students statewide earned more than 18,000 credit hours, according to the Oregon Department of Education. The majority of those were earned in English/language arts, math and science.

School districts receiving grants are required to report the number of students they serve, credits successfully earned, credits offered and earned by subject area, students enrolled, attendance and the number of programs with specific accommodations and serving those with disabilities.

According to 2021′s reporting data, all three districts saw students follow through and earn more than 80% of the credit hours the district offered during summer programming. Beaverton students earned the highest percentage of credit hours offered, at 90%.

Of the $150 million the Legislature allocated for summer learning in 2022, $100 million of which went towards helping school districts offer summer learning and enrichment programs, with districts required to add 25% more from local funding as a match.

The other $50 million provided grants to help community-based organizations across the state partner with education service districts to support students with disabilities and historically underserved communities.

Data provided by Portland Public Schools shows that in Portland, the demographics of students taking advantage of summer programming are less overwhelmingly white than the district’s regular school year enrollment. While 56% of the students who attend Oregon’s largest district are white, white students made up 44% of summer program attendees. Black and Hispanic students make up 31%, while students reporting being of mixed race make up 12% and Asian American students represent 6%.

— Sam Stites; [email protected]; @sl_stites

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