Despite Snags, Officials Hope NYC’s New Summer School Serves As Future Model

In the third week of New York City’s ambitious, new version of summer school, more than 200,000 students are enrolled to take part in a mix of academics and recreation — a hybrid program that, despite some logistical snags, officials hope will radically change how kids spend their summers.

For the first time, all of the city’s public school students can participate, not just those who need help passing a grade. Older students can make up credits or get extra help in math and humanities. Younger kids split the day between academics and activities, like art, athletics, and games.

Funded partially by stimulus money, the program, called Summer Rising, is free for families, and serves as child care for many working parents who have struggled during a year of remote learning and last-minute school shutdowns. more than 200,000 students have signed up.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said he hopes the program will be a model for the future. “This ends summer school as we knew it,” he said when he announced the program this spring.

For years, education experts have proposed extending the school year through the summer to avoid the so-called “summer slide.” One study found kids lost about a month of the progress they made from September to June during July and August.

Additionally, educators point to the tremendous inequity between economic groups, as students from affluent families spend summer months participating in a range of enriching camps, activities and trips that their peers from low-income families often cannot access.

This spring, the Biden Administration encouraged districts to use stimulus funding to support summer programs, both to help kids catch up academically from the pandemic and get the emotional support they need. Many districts expanded their offerings; New York’s program is the largest. The city is investing $200 million in this year’s program, drawing on federal funds as well as local tax dollars.

Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter said the goal of Summer Rising is to help ease kids back into classrooms. “It is a bridge and pathway back to our new normal, our new school year,” she said.

At Brooklyn Collaborative School, a middle and high school in Carroll Gardens, history teacher Stephen Simons said about half of his students are in summer school because they need the credits, and half are there because they are interested in the coursework. Simons is teaching the Bill of Rights, plus some college planning and financial literacy on the side. “Summer Rising is definitely a slam dunk for sure,” he said. “It’s a great success.”

While helping kids regain ground academically is important, some educators said their priority is supporting students rebound socially and emotionally from the stresses of the pandemic. “Just making sure they’re happy, healthy and … feeling connected,” said Diane Castelucci, principal at the Brooklyn New School, which is co-located in the same building as Brooklyn Collaborative.

To that end, on a recent morning, the block outside the building was closed as a teaching artist encouraged students to loosen their limbs while listening to Harry Belafonte. Elementary school kids were literally dancing in the street. In the schoolyard, students harvested eggs from three chickens, cultivated edible flowers and painted mud murals.

Back in a classroom, Bucky Carter, 9, was doing math worksheets, and he said even that was fun. “It’s going great,” he said, adding that he’d already completed four problems. “I feel happy, because it’s nice to play with my friends a lot, and since it’s not real school, it’s summer school, it’s really fun.”

Ivana DiStefano, who is sending her 7-year-old twins to the program, said she’s also thrilled. The fact that it’s free is a huge help, she said, especially since her husband, a trainer at a gym, was out of work for a while. After a year of remote learning, she wanted her twins back with their classmates. “It’s just a great opportunity for them to continue to have their friendships, make new friendships and just enjoy the summer and have fun.”

But behind the scenes, many administrators said it has been chaotic. ‘Our folks are so professional that regardless of how badly something is implemented they pull together and they do it,” said Mark Cannizzaro, the head of the principals union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.

To fuse together the academic and recreational elements, officials asked schools to partner with the nonprofits that typically run the city’s free summer camps. Both the schools and the nonprofits had trouble finding enough teachers and counselors to meet demand. That’s left programs scrambling to get new employees fingerprinted.

The education department also changed key guidance just days before the program was supposed to launch, requiring all students to be accommodated at the sites of their choice, and altering the staff-student ratios.

Meanwhile, the city only stopped accepting new applicants this week — so enrollment has been in constant flux. Some principals said their summer school budgets are nearly depleted with a month left to go. And nonprofit leaders worry they won’t have enough staff to get through the summer. Because of positive coronavirus cases, many classrooms have had to close: unvaccinated people in more than 100 classes are currently in quarantine.

“The program itself is really great for families,” said Brooklyn New School’s Castelucci. “We’re really happy it’s happening. But there’s been a lot of figuring out.”