Manchester takes an expansive view of COVID-era summer learning

By: - May 7, 2021 10:11 am
Manchester School District headquarters

With more than 13,000 students, Manchester is the state’s largest school district. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

It’s the summer of freedom, the first step in the return to normalcy. But for many New Hampshire schools, the warmer months of 2021 present a new challenge: a rush on summer school programs. 

Parents are calling constantly. Registrations are flowing in. Schools are expanding programs to meet what they expect to be major demand.

“This year we really want to focus on students getting back to being a kid,” said Sherri Nichols, the Title IX coordinator for the Manchester School District. “And trying to do as much as we can with moving away from the technology and doing more of the hands-on approach to get them ready and shore up those skills that they may have had some misconceptions on with learning at a distance.”

In Manchester, the state’s largest district at more than 13,000 students, officials are extending the length of summer programs – and expanding who can access them.

For years, Manchester has run the Summer Learning Academy, traditionally a four-week program allowing elementary and middle school students to get additional instruction and preparation for the coming year. That program has been limited to certain categories of students, from those attending Title I schools, whose population is at least 40 percent low-income students, to English language learners.

But this year, the program will be open to any student in the district. 

For Amy Allen, assistant superintendent, the expansion was prompted in part by worried parents. But students have also been concerned.

“We’ve had students reaching out, too – just that they’re struggling,” Allen said. “So it’s just (about) connecting them and supporting them.” 

City educators are now stitching together what they say is the district’s most comprehensive summer program yet, combining programming from a network of nonprofit organizations in Manchester with in-district instruction.

The city is building on partnerships with GEAR UP, a Concord-based organization working to prepare high school students for college, and Girls at Work, a Manchester organization focused on inspiring girls to explore construction and woodworking projects. 

And this year, district funding has been bolstered by COVID-related federal aid, Nichols said.

The scope of instruction is expanding, too. The Summer Learning Academy will be five days a week, up from the previous four, and will last six weeks instead of four.

The result: a program with higher than ever turnout. As of a May 5 registration cut off, about 850 students had signed up for the Summer Learning Academy. Approximately 300 are participating in a separate Extended School Year program serving special education students. 

The summer program efforts are the continuation of work that began well before the pandemic. Until 2017, the Manchester School District had separate programs during the summer months – the 21st Century Program, a federally funded program that offers tutoring and homework, and a program for English language learners, in addition to GEAR UP and Girls at Work.

When Nichols first arrived several years ago, she and the district set an ambitious goal: combining the 21st Century and Summer Learning Academy programs into one.

“I really wanted to merge the programs together, instead of competing for the same students, to make our programming be more robust,” Nichols said. 

After years of planning, the program took off in 2019. Then COVID-19 arrived. With classrooms shuttered in March and April 2020, the demand for the summer programs picked up and Nichols saw an opportunity to expand.

For the first time in years, Ready Set Kindergarten, a three-week program to get young kids acclimated to school, will be revived, officials say. A day program for special education will be extended. And it will be the first year that the Summer Learning Academy will be extended to high school students – a major change for an age group that previously could enter into courses only to recover credits. That means high school students can now take comprehensive humanities classes with drop-in tutoring, in addition to traditional summer school courses to improve grades. 

With so many options, students will have the ability to mix and match programs. A student might spend three weeks with the Summer Learning Academy and an additional two with GEAR UP or Girls at Work, Nichols said. The system is designed to accommodate unique schedules and needs. 

But there’s also a social piece, school officials say. While hosted in existing school buildings, the program is designed to feel like a summer camp, Nichols said. Achieving that means setting up partnerships with the Cub Scouts, Girls at Work, and GEAR UP, allowing kids in one program to benefit from another. 

“It’s all hands on deck,” Nichols said.  “We’re very much project-based learning.”

Moving into the high school age group makes sense – especially after the year of COVID, said Kelli Jobel, a data and technology teacher and an organizer of the summer programming.

“Those guys need humans, too,” Jobel said, speaking of the learning loss.

Demand for the programs has always been high among parents anxious to ensure their children bridge any gaps that formed during the school year.

But through the summer of 2020, that interest intensified. High school students and parents who had never before considered summer programs flooded the district with requests for expanded programs. Even the remote summer programs – in summer 2020 and 2021 – seemed to make a difference, Jobel said.

“They all want in,” Jobel said. “They want in, and they want to know if their kids have been accepted and when is it gonna start?”

While the nonprofit partner programs are capped and filled on a first-come, first-served basis, the district-run Summer Learning Academy was open to all who applied by May 4.

As Manchester and other districts ramp up their programs, coordinating simple services is its own challenge. Many of the key district support systems are just as they are during the regular school year: the district will offer breakfast and lunch, and bus transportation throughout the city. 

In designing the summer programs, educators have been mindful of a key aim: breaking through the academic stasis of what has been for some children a year of remote learning. To Jobel, though, returning to basics is half the battle.

“It’s just getting them into a building and getting them outdoors and getting humans in front of them,” she said. “Instead of having them on the computer all the time.

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.