By Lacey Sikora
In October, Oak Park and River Forest High School released its summer school evaluation, which reflected declining summer school enrollment as well as marked differences in how students take advantage of summer offerings among races and class year.
Greg Johnson, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said of the report, "The primary takeaway is that we know our student population is using summer school differently, and we want to do everything we can to help kids get the most out of summer school."
One major conclusion of the evaluation was that students from different racial backgrounds use summer school differently. White students are more likely to attend summer school before their freshman year to smooth their adjustment to the new school and to get a leg up on course requirements. Those students return to summer school less in each year that follows. African American students, often trying to make up academic credits, predominantly attend summer school before their senior year, with lower participation rates in each of the preceding years.
Johnson says this reflects an access gap, not an achievement gap. "When a certain portion of the population, for example white families, are using summer school to get ahead, it opens up space during the school year for A.P. or dual-credit classes. Other families won't get that space. We're looking at ways to change that gap. We need to make sure that we're providing children that access to courses."
The district is considering a pilot of a hybrid learning model as a possible way to bridge that gap. Johnson describes it as a hybrid between traditional "seat time" and distance learning on a Chromebook. "The students could get more time in a subject and go more in-depth but not have to be in school more hours."
Other important findings of the evaluation center on bridge programs. The 8 to 9 Connections program is one designed specifically to help students make the leap from middle school to high school. In 2018, 40 students enrolled in the 8 to 9 Connections Program and earned high school credit before entering their ninth-grade year. Of those students, four were white, 27 were African American, and the rest were Hispanic or multi-racial.
Johnson said enrollment in this program is voluntary and students are encouraged to enroll based on information from OPRF's feeder districts, Oak Park's District 97 and River Forest's District 90. "These are kids who we are told might benefit from learning executive function and good study habits. It's based on their track record in eighth grade: test scores, grades, behavior and attendance. It's a way to give these students a booster shot before they enter as freshmen."
A newer program in 2018, the A.P. Summer Bridge Program enrolled 28 students: three white, 11 African American, nine Latino, four multi-racial and one Asian/Pacific Islander. Some 73 percent of students who completed the summer course attempted their first semester in an A.P. English or history course in the fall. Johnson says of this program, "It's designed with much of the same philosophy as the 8 to 9 Connections but with older students. They are identified by their desire or a teacher recommendation to take an A.P. class. The focus of this program is to improve minority enrollment in our A.P. classes."
Johnson says that the majority population in the School Credit Recovery Program of summer school were African American males. He describes ongoing changes to the program such as hiring teachers who are certified in multiple content areas and clustering classrooms closer to each other, so that students can reap the benefit of exposure to teachers in multiple subject areas.
He said, "We are doing our best to cover these classes with the right expertise. It's a population we know we need to do better by."
Another overall change in summer school? Declining enrollment. In 2017, 1,242 students enrolled in summer school. In 2018, that number was 1,083. Johnson says the school has been taking steps to address declining enrollment, and acknowledges those steps are not enough.
"We are trying to figure out the decrease in overall numbers. Some of that could be tied to changes we already made: we no longer offer health. We decreased financial literacy classes. But that doesn't explain the entire trend. We need to survey our families and get a better understanding of the courses they want to see. Our digital literacy class has been a great success, can we make that a bigger success?"
He points to changes made in 2018 that did not appear to have a positive impact on enrollment.
"Last year, we changed our registration process. When registration was only open during finite hours of the school day, classes filled up very quickly, and working parents might not have been able to access the system as easily."
He said the school also removed some of the enrollment caps on popular courses. "This didn't solve the problem. We don't know if we should remove caps for all courses, or should we offer different classes?"
At the end of the day, Johnson said the summer school evaluation will inform changes to summer school going forward. He said the evaluation is not a strategic plan. With the data from the evaluation in hand, he said, "Our big challenge moving forward is how to make a plan based on the report."
SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).
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