If there were a ranking of phrases that create dread in students, “summer school” would surely rank near the top. Summers are their taste of freedom, particularly for high schoolers, and summer school can be seen as an infringement on three months of less structure and more fun. 

But some students need extra help. In fact, a great many students need to be brought up to speed after remote learning (which was definitely remote but rarely learning) utterly failed them. Only 27% of eighth graders are proficient in math, and only 31% in reading. Now is the time for districts to figure out summer school programs that work for students and families. 

Running a quality summer school program is not the same as opening the school doors for the same sort of programming that happens during the school year. The National Summer Learning Project found that low attendance was a major barrier to the success of summer school programs. After all, students cannot benefit from a program they don’t attend! 

Because attendance is voluntary, summer school programs need parents and students on board in order to reach students who need help the most. Summer Adventures in Learning (SAIL), a group based in Alabama, credits much of its success to making learning fun. The approach has paid off: According to AL.com, Tuscaloosa third through eighth graders made up to one and a half months’ worth of academic progress in summer school. Their peers who did not attend the program suffered a “summer slide” of an average of two months of learning loss. 

Indiana’s Indy Summer Learning Labs followed a similar approach and saw excellent results. The program, which runs for five weeks, is aimed at students most in need of an educational boost, and it encourages enrichment activities like trips to the zoo, field days, and even outings to minor league baseball games. In just over a month, students in the program saw an average increase of 24 percentage points on an English Language Arts test and 25 percentage points on a math test. 

Families are happy with this program and more of them are flocking to it. Last year, 93% of participating families said they had a “good” or “great” experience. In 2021, the program had almost 3,000 participants. Last summer, 5,000 students took part. The magic of these programs is a two-pronged focus on both core subjects and making learning fun. Other states would do well to prioritize these facets of their summer programs. 

Billions of COVID education relief dollars still remain unspent, even as we reach the third anniversary of the start of the lockdowns. School districts owe it to the families they serve to offer meaningful summer school programs that meet their students’ needs.