After a traumatic academic year that left many behind, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius set a goal to create a summer plan for every student, including offering free educational programs that largely would benefit English learners, students of color, and those with disabilities. Educators would reach out to every family to make sure students had opportunities for enrichment or an “academic boost” and high schoolers would find jobs or “meaningful internships.”
But the school district fell short of the goal, and didn’t reach out to every student or family. The district enrolled just under a quarter of its nearly 50,000 students, with many parents saying they were unaware summer school was an option and others saying they could not find a spot in a program that fit their needs.
“Although we didn’t get all of the students we wanted and some families didn’t get the information, the students who are engaged are showing up and enjoying it,” Cassellius said in an interview Friday. “We will do better.”
Fewer students enrolled in a city-sponsored summer program designed for English learners compared to the summer of 2019, with some indicating they didn’t even know free options were available. Overall Boston summer school enrollment is up by 18 percent over pre-pandemic levels, but not as much as Boston school leaders anticipated and experts and education advocates say was necessary to provide the level of support and enrichment needed after more than a year of remote and hybrid learning.
“Summer was an opportunity to make up for lost instructional time, reconnect with peers, and get reacquainted with school in an environment that’s perhaps safer because you can be outside,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, state director for Massachusetts of the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based education think tank that advocates for high-quality opportunities for children of color and students living in poverty.
Other Boston-area school districts, including Chelsea and Quincy, ramped up their offerings and enrolled hundreds more than ever before. Nationally, other large cities, including New York City and Los Angeles, guaranteed a seat to all students in the summer programs, while Boston’s registration page carried the caveat that “seats are limited.”
“That’s a code word for ‘you can try, but don’t expect to get in,’” said Edith Bazile, a former Boston Public School teacher and administrator and the former president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts. “The district needs to provide full access to parents with limited resources and assist them to get into the programs.”
After more than a year of learning losses caused by the pandemic, there’s been a national push to enroll more children in summer school, so they begin catching up academically and interacting with peers again. The Biden administration has made it a priority, pumping at least $1.2 billion in federal stimulus dollars into summer learning programs. Boston planned to allocate $10 million of its federal funds for summer school and supports. In all, Boston has budgeted about $18 million for summer programming, $9 million more than in previous years.
In Boston, school leaders said some parents were afraid to send their children out of the home because of COVID-19 and others were just burnt out after an exhausting year of virtual learning. They also heard that the timing of Boston’s programs, many of which end between 1 and 3 p.m., didn’t match parents’ work schedules.
While the district texted, called, and e-mailed parents, schools don’t appear to have followed through on Cassellius’s desire to connect with every student or family or confirm that every student had a plan for the summer.
“I want to believe that our school leaders contacted all students at risk of being behind,” Cassellius said. “We know some did.” The district doesn’t have a centralized way to document outreach to parents, and needs one “so we can hold ourselves accountable.” In the future, Cassellius said teachers will be in the best position to make sure every student has a summer plan.
Finding summer programs was a problem even before the pandemic. A national study shows many Boston parents couldn’t find affordable summer activities for their children.
“It’s that typical Boston thing where you have to know someone who knows someone,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “Kids have had a really hard year. You need to make it as easy as possible to sign up.”
And it wasn’t clear enough from the registration website that the opportunities were free, said Reyes. “It should have been blasted in a banner — ‘This is free.’”
Dorchester resident Larae Robinson wanted her four school-age children to do something fun this summer. “They’ve been cooped up in the house all year... last summer was robbed from them,” she said.
She found summer programs through the city of Boston for her two older children, but struck out for her 7- and 12-year-olds. No one at her children’s schools mentioned any free camps or summer learning programs, she said.
“If they’d offered something free, fun, and not school, it would have been great,” said Robinson.
She couldn’t afford to send them to a private camp, which can cost from $250 to $500 per week per child. “It’s either camp or bills,” said Robinson.
So her youngest children are spending their days sleeping in and watching television.
A study released in May by the Afterschool Alliance found that even before the pandemic, nearly 15,000 Boston children did not have access to summer learning programs. Twenty-nine percent of children whose parents wanted them in a summer program were not able to enroll them, the study found. Cost of summer programming was the most common barrier cited by parents.
“For the kids that are in programs, parents are really happy with them, but ... there’s a shortage of programs,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance. “For every kid that’s in a program, there’s at least one more whose parents want them in a program, but it’s not available.”
Boston has drawn national praise for reinventing the typical summer school experience by working with local organizations to creatively hook students with an exciting activity — such as swimming, tennis, or exploring nature. Then they sneak in a daily dose of reading and math so students don’t forget their skills over the summer. (The district also offers typical credit-recovery programs for students who failed a class, programs for students in special education, and “learning academies” based at schools.)
The enrichment and learning camps admired nationally cost about $1,500 per student for a five-week session. Boston Public Schools pays a little over a third of that, which covers the cost of a licensed teacher and some of the enrichment, according to Chris Smith, the executive director of Boston After School and Beyond, which oversees Boston’s collaboration with dozens of private organizations hosting summer learning camps.
Boston Public School teachers are preferred, but after such a challenging year, fewer wanted to teach this summer. About 30 of the roughly 360 teachers had to be hired from other districts.
Smith is now working with the cities of Worcester and Springfield to create similar collaborations between districts and local organizations to provide engaging summer learning camps.
Because of the pandemic, most of the state’s urban districts used federal relief money to create voluntary summer school this year to address missed lessons and the social isolation and emotional trauma from a year spent learning online, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
Chelsea Public Schools, for example, added a program for English learners and another to prepare middle schoolers for high school calculus. “We tried to be a bit more robust this summer because we wanted to engage as many students as we could,” said School Superintendent Almi Abeyta. Of the district’s approximately 6,000 students, 950 enrolled, compared with 600 to 700 in a typical year.
For the lucky Boston students who get a spot in the enhanced summer learning camps offered in conjunction with Boston After School and Beyond, the five-week session can be a revelation.
Nine-year-old Eric Elliot prefers to “just chill” and visit his grandmother in New York over the summer. But this year, at the end of school, some of his teachers at the Russell Elementary in Dorchester mentioned an opportunity to learn how to swim if he stayed around Boston.
He’d also learn to sail a boat in Boston Harbor. “I originally didn’t think it would be that fun,” he said last month. “Turns out it is really fun.”
Sandwiched between swim lessons and learning how to tell which way the wind is blowing, Eric works through word problems that test his math skills, and reads about the water crisis in Flint, Mich. If that’s not enough, he also learns how to name his emotions in “feelings class.”
“I’m not bored and get to keep up with math,” he said.
The district reached out to parents in May with robocalls, texts, e-mails, and — for the first time — erected billboards directing them to the registration website. But Smith says the process needs to start sooner. Educators and parents need to start talking about summer plans in February and think of it like an extension of the school year.
As Boston decides how to spend millions in federal pandemic relief dollars, many are hoping the district will devote some of the money to expanding these summer learning opportunities.
“We have this incredible opportunity to really build something special,” said Grant. “In Boston, the foundation’s already there.”
This Globe story includes reporting from John Laidler.