The Philadelphia School District plans to spend millions on summer programming that will be open to every public school student in the city, with full-day options for younger children that include enrichment activities offered in conjunction with the city.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced the plans at a news conference Thursday, pledging programs of unprecedented scope in light of the academic disruptions wrought by COVID-19 and $1.2 billion in pandemic relief money from the federal government.
The superintendent also said Thursday that the school system does plan to administer state exams to students returning to in-person learning this academic year.
It’s a sea change from prior years, when budget cuts forced the district to offer barely any summer school, just those extended school-year programs the district is federally mandated to offer some students with special needs and a small amount of credit recovery for high school students trying to reach graduation.
This summer, “the goal is to keep as many young people engaged as possible,” Hite said. “There will be opportunities this summer for any family who wants their child in some sort of program.”
The news comes as districts around the region and across the country are gearing up for expanded summer offerings, fueled by the one-time federal money and the need to catch students up. Upper Darby, for instance, has said it plans to spend $600,000 to $900,000 on summer programming to help about 12% of its students. Elsewhere, big-city districts are announcing plans to ratchet up summer program eligibility and spending to meet student needs.
What’s not clear, in Philadelphia or elsewhere, is how many students will show up this summer: After a year behind a computer screens, some parents and children will likely be reluctant to commit to going to school, even if it’s in person, for free programs.
Philadelphia will soon open up programs for families to sign up.
The in-person programs will be open to the district’s 120,000 students, from prekindergarten through 12th grade, whether they’re off-track academically or not. Though attendance will not be compulsory, district officials say there are about 14,000 students for whom summer classes will be strongly recommended, and the actual summer school size could be much larger, depending on parent opt-in.
The summer programs will open June 28 and operate for five or six weeks at schools throughout the city, in at least 24 buildings, though officials said they would open more schools if demand is great.
To staff it, the district will ask teachers, administrators, climate support staff, and others to work, but “we are also considering emergency operations,” which would include hiring outside staff if not enough district workers want to sign on, chief academic support officer Malika Savoy-Brooks said.
“This has been a tough year for educators,” Hite said. “Some may need to take a break, and rightfully so.”
The program’s price tag will depend on how many students enroll, but the district has money to spend: 20% of the COVID-19 relief money, or about $260 million, must be allocated to mitigate learning loss over three years. Hite said the district will probably end up spending more on programs aimed at targeting learning loss, from summer school to school-year offerings like before- and aftercare programs.
Hite was clear: The five- or six-week programs will not wipe away the pandemic’s effects.
“You don’t make up that time in five or six weeks,” the superintendent said. “What we’re trying to do is reduce regression. That’s going to be something that we’re going to have to continue to work on over the next several years.”
As they have throughout the pandemic, it made sense for the city and district to team up around summer programming, said Cynthia Figueroa, the city’s deputy mayor for children and families. So providers who typically partner with the city for summer programs will mesh with the district’s academics for full-day offerings for students in grades one through eight.
“We want them to be in person and have an opportunity to gain maybe some of the opportunities they missed during the year,” Figueroa said. “But we want them to have fun.”
For students in grades one through eight, there will be full days, with a focus on academics but also arts, music, outdoor activities, and other things more common to summer camps.
The aim is to give kids who have had little access to in-person schooling opportunities for socialization and fun, but also to better position students for school in the fall, Savoy-Brooks said.
For the summer curriculum, “we’re just not looking at the school year and determining a repeat of what kids learned, but where we see those gaps,” she said.
High school students will have options, too. The district also plans to expand its summer bridge program designed to help transition new ninth graders to high school, offering the program to students entering 10th grade. There will also be credit recovery for those who need to make up classes, career and technical education programs, and a University of Pennsylvania program open to all students finishing their junior year.
“Our basic goal is to keep our students on track to graduation,” said Savoy-Brooks.
Most Philadelphia students are still learning remotely, more than a year after COVID-19 closed school buildings. Some prekindergarten through second-grade students are learning in schools two days a week, and kids in grades three through five, as well as those in sixth through eighth grades with intense special needs, are eligible to return April 26. There’s no timetable for a return for other students, but Hite said the district will return more kids to buildings “soon.”
Hite said Thursday that the district will administer standardized tests this spring to those children returning to buildings, a move that’s already amassed pushback from some parents and teachers.
Administering the tests isn’t ideal, Hite has said, especially given the short window until the end of the school year and the amount of time kids have been out of school buildings, but the Biden administration has ordered all states to perform assessments or lose crucial federal Title I funding. And though Pennsylvania is permitting districts to delay them to the fall, Hite said that’s not the best option.
“We think the fall would be disruptive — to start a school year for children sitting with assessments,” the superintendent said.
Students who do not return to in-person learning will not take the tests, and Hite emphasized that even those who come back don’t have to sit for them.
“While we’re making a good-faith effort, it’s also equally important for parents to know that they have the ability to opt out,” Hite said. He said parents could notify their children’s principal or even the superintendent himself if they didn’t want their kids to take the tests.
Still, some standardized tests may bleed into the fall. Asked if high school students would return to in-person learning in time to take the state Keystone exams, Hite said he didn’t think so.
“I don’t see a scenario where we’re going to be able to do Keystones,” he said.