W-JCC summer school programs offer very different learning experiences

Staff writer

There’s a certain image that comes to mind when “summer school” comes up: Perhaps a group of “Breakfast Club” lookalikes sitting miserably in a classroom for the duration of summer break. The reality is much different: Small class sizes, individualized lesson plans and most importantly, students who are excited to learn.

Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools runs four different summer school programs at the high school level: Credit recovery for students who did not pass a course and need to retake the class; SOL Academy for students who passed a class but need to retake the corresponding SOL; acceleration courses for students who are interested in taking a new course over the summer — this year’s offerings include Health and PE and Economics and Personal Finance; and an extended school year program open to special education students. There also are middle and elementary school remedial courses offered later in the summer.

“Summer school is a chance for students to have a second chance at classes that they have failed, but there’s much more to it than just that, and it’s very different from how many people picture it,” said Connie Forget, the summer school program’s acting principal. “For example, of our four programs that we offer, the most popular ones are the acceleration classes.”

According to Forget, there are 220 students in the acceleration program, 60 in the credit recovery program, eight in Extended School Year and 14 in SOL Academy. Classes meet from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with classes including a range of English, math, civics and science courses. While there are small differences in how each one is taught, the summer school courses all provide a very different learning environment than the regular school year.

“All of the lessons are customized through pre-assessment tests, which each student takes when they first come here, which lets us pinpoint exactly what they already know and what they need to work on,” Forget said. “The format can be different, too, like the acceleration courses are almost entirely online, classwork can be done at home online, and the classes themselves are smaller, and the teachers are more able to provide individual attention and help when needed.”

A different classroom experience

Valerie Smith, one of 17 teachers on staff for summer school, teaches English at Lafayette High School during the regular school year, but for summer school, she teaches English for grades 9-12 as part of the remedial program, something that requires a very different approach and at times more involvment.

“During the regular school year, we have a student for maybe 90 days and we have them for the duration regardless of what happens. What’s different about summer school is we’re looking at mastery learning,” Smith said. “We have tasks they need to accomplish, and the skills and lessons they need to finish, and once they’ve completed them they’re done with the course.”

Smith says it’s a different approach, one that appeals to different types of learners, and offers students a greater incentive to get the work done faster and to focus on getting it right the first time. One way this can be seen is that, while each summer school course does have a set period, students can complete them well in advance, some even completing their coursework in less than a week.

“If I told you that you had a full 90 days to clean a house, you might not be as motivated to do it right away. You may do a bit at a time, you may rush to do it all at the end,” Smith said. “On the other hand, if I give you a list of tasks that, once completed, you’re done, you might be a little more motivated to tackle it right away, and students in summer school tend to be much more task-oriented, and they work harder and get better results.”

This incentivized approach also allows for more specialized and individualized teaching than there is typically time for during the regular school year. Not only because of the smaller class sizes, but because lesson plans can be tailored for each student’s needs.

“Every student in summer school has a different story on why they’re here, but once they’re here, we try to make a difference,” Smith said. “Maybe they needed more attention than they were able to receive in a typical 30-student classroom setting, and they get that here, and there’s also less stigma here in actually asking for a little extra help in the first place, so you can cater to those needs a bit more.”

Chandler McKnight, a school improvement specialist at Berkeley Middle School who oversees the SOL Academy this summer, said that kind of focus and flexibility has a big impact on how instruction is handled.

“Targeted instruction is a key component, so we know what they need to work on to pass that last bit before moving on to the next year,” McKnight said. “Being able to hone in on just what areas the students need help in, rather than reteaching an entire course, lets us make the most use of their time and ours.”

Positive atmosphere, positive results

The popular image of summer school may be that it’s a punishment for failure, but the atmosphere and environment W-JCC tries to foster in each of its summer school programs is to offer the encouragement and lessons needed to succeed — and offer students the ability to go the extra mile if they so choose.

“We have had 19 students who have already completed their assigned summer school two weeks into this year’s summer school session, many of whom came back to work on other classes,” Forget said. “That’s a new thing we’ve offered this year, allowing students to retake other classes once they’ve finished the course they originally came here to retake, allowing them to bump up their other grades or even get a head start.”

Seeing how receptive students have been to that opportunity has been one of the most pleasant surprises about summer school this year, according to Forget.

“We had one student who had originally come here very begrudgingly, and they’d completed the class they’d come here for yesterday,” Forget said. “I told him that he could go, that he was done, but he looked at me and said he wanted to take a few more tests to improve his grades even more. You see a lot of that here, kids who maybe originally didn’t want to be here now going the extra mile now that they are.”

That is what summer school is all about — offering students the tools they need to succeed, and then giving them the opportunity to make use of them.

“It’s a pleasant place to be, lots of encouragement not only from staff but from students to one another. And some of these students, who’d originally come for just one or two classes, are now looking to take a few more because they want to get ahead or get higher grades on things they may have already taken,” Smith said. “You see them find a love of learning that maybe wasn’t there before, and that’s what we always want to see from our students, no matter if it’s September, March or July.”

Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email sean.korsgaard@vagazette.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.

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