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BPS urges half its students to attend summer school

ANTTI AIMO-KOIVISTO/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images

The Boston Public Schools are strongly encouraging about half of the city’s students to attend online summer schools when they start next week — more than double the number who’ve attended summer school in recent years.

The huge increase testifies to the concern among educators that students fell behind this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. But enticing those kids to sign up for even more remote learning — now that it’s finally summer and the lockdown is lifting — is a tricky business.

To entice students to log on, the district is offering new opportunities, including the chance to learn about social justice or continue studying with teachers they know. Teachers are jazzing up online classes with hands-on projects, physical activities, and games.

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“We don’t have time to lose this summer, so we can come back stronger in the fall,” said Andrea Zayas, Boston’s chief academic officer.

Attendance isn’t mandatory. But school leaders have urged students who received an “incomplete” for a class, those attending schools with the largest concentrations of low-income students, and students learning English to sign up, according to Zayas.

As of Tuesday, 12,381 students had registered, about a third more than the students who participated last summer. Last school year, the system taught about 54,000 students.

Summer programs range from enrichment camps and credit recovery programs to school-based classes meant to help students continue the spring semester. Technically many of these programs are available to all students, but the district says it reached out first to the students whom educators believed needed the extra help, as they’ve done in the past.

The district is also expanding its approach this year, with three dozen schools offering their own classes for the first time and adding a new summer school focused on social justice to entice students energized by the protests against racism in Boston and elsewhere following the killing of George Floyd.

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Even though participation is voluntary, individual school leaders are setting the expectations for their students.

“I’m telling my students it’s mandatory,” said Dania Vázquez, in hopes that as many students as possible sign up.

Vázquez, headmaster at the Margarita Muñiz Academy, a dual-language high school in Jamaica Plain where students learn in Spanish and English, invited 100 students, a third of the student body, to attend and 125 have signed up so far. Most of the invited students have at least one incomplete class and will get the opportunity to work with teachers to finish lessons from the spring.

“Most of them need more time,” said Vázquez . “This is about not giving up on our students.”

Learning from home was challenging for many; some went to work to earn money after their parents lost their jobs and others had family members who contracted COVID-19.

Vázquez worried her students wouldn’t sign up for a program offered by strangers, which is why she and a third of her teachers didn’t hesitate to work this summer, she said. The 36 schools offering their own summer school include the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Fenway High School, and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School.

Ashley Davis, principal of the P.A. Shaw Elementary School in Dorchester, pushed for 70 of her 182 students to attend summer classes. She reached out to students in special education, students learning English, and any students who “were disconnected from learning” during the school closure.

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Her school will offer small group classes focused on skills such as phonics or math and will have a schedule tailored to their needs.

“Going into next school year, we want to be better than we were before,” said Davis. “Using the summer as a space to be responsive and proactive feels smart.”

Davis said her team learned a lot during the pandemic about the right ways to engage families. Still, she worries that families for whom remote learning didn’t work in the spring might also struggle to participate now.

“It feels tricky to expect that that would change once the school year has ended,” she said, so she plans to provide extra support, such as a wake-up call or text message for certain families.

It could be challenging to persuade many families to sign-up for more screen time during a season children are more accustomed to playing outside — and after months of quarantine spent largely indoors in many instances.

“Folks are going above and beyond to think about” how to make it “exciting,” Zayas said.

For example, students learning English might play language-based games or do movement exercises that incorporate language lessons.

Most of the five-week programs begin July 6 and will run remotely. All classes are free.

Boston has long offered a number of summer programs in partnership with Boston After School and Beyond that look more like camp than traditional summer school, mixing enrichment and academics focused on a particular theme such as sailing. This year it will continue many of those programs — albeit remotely.

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Most summer classes will focus on teaching the standards the state has prioritized while students and teachers are at home, but the approach will be different, said Zayas. Students will do projects that incorporate multiple subjects to develop something relevant to their lives.

For example, children in an early program for ages 4 through 7 will get kits to build a device they can use for playing outside this summer (the exact device is meant to be a surprise for the students). A new social justice program for grades three through 12 might ask students to create websites or campaigns, for example.

“We’re going to need to do things a little bit differently to make sure that our students are really hooked into their learning,” said Zayas.

The Boston Public Schools will take attendance and test students in summer school to better understand how much they’ve learned — or haven’t learned, said Zayas, so the district can hone its plans for the fall.


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.