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Regional Interests

Oakland Students Won’t See a Major Summer School Expansion This Year

After a year of distance learning, Ericka Njemanze knows her third-grade twins are behind.

“At the rate it’s going right now, I don’t think they’re ready for fourth grade at all,” she says.

Now she’s counting on five additional weeks of learning to make up the difference.

Summer school has traditionally offered struggling students a chance to catch up so they’re better prepared to start the next grade. But this year, as California school districts collect billions in pandemic relief money, many parents have their hopes set on those extra classes in June and July to compensate for any learning loss suffered during a school year in which kids, for the first time, learned completely at home through lessons given online.

“It’s going to have to be a whole lot of catching up,” Njemanze says.

She’s hoping her twins can brush up on their writing skills and practice their division.

“Something,” she says, “Because they’re really not where they’re supposed to be.”

Njemanze’s kids have attended summer school for the past three years. This year, she was hoping the district would offer something extra because, right now, they have extra needs.

“With all the money, I would think that they would have been able to hire more teachers,” she says.

The Oakland Unified School District is expecting about $277 million in state and federal COVID relief money over the next three years, according to a district spokesperson.

But the cash isn’t translating into a major expansion of summer school, and in most ways it is business as usual. There’s still an intensive focus on literacy and small-group support for young students, plus hands-on enrichment activities.

“We have great interest from families,” says Julie McCalmont, the district’s summer learning program coordinator. “What we’re finding is our teachers are not as excited, and so we do have a little bit of a teacher shortage that we’re really racing to close.”

She’s planning to enroll the same number of students as usual, about 6,000. The most significant change this year is that families can choose between in-person classes and remote learning. Social distancing guidelines also mean classrooms are capped at 14 students.

“We need a lot more teachers in order to serve the same amount of students,” McCalmont says.

All that added labor — not just teachers, but extra support staff — will cost the district an extra $2 million, she says.

If the influx of COVID relief money does lead to more robust summer offerings, they won’t come until next year, according to McCalmont. Because while the funds will still be around, the COVID protocols may not. If that’s the case, she’d like to see the district spend the money on serving as many as 10,000 students.

“The real story is what we’re going to be dreaming up for 2022 when we are all back on our campuses together, where we don’t have to focus so much energy on operations and COVID response, [so] we can really focus on instructional design and student learning,” she says. “This is when we’re going to see the COVID money really ignite innovation.”

A couple weeks before the end of the school year, she was worried about simply maintaining regular programming.

“A successful summer will be maintaining the normal number of students that we always serve, given the pandemic and given the exhaustion point of so many of our teachers,” she says.

But after a major recruitment push from the district, another 50 teachers signed up. In all, about 400 teachers stepped forward to teach this summer, enough to serve all the students who signed up.

Darielle Vigay, a seventh grade history teacher, has taught the past three summers. But this year, she’s prioritizing her own children.

“I just really wanted to dedicate that time to my kids and being able to get them out of the house,” she says. “My family needed it.”

And she sees value in teachers and students taking a break to focus on themselves.

“While there’s definitely learning loss that happened, if our mental health isn’t right, August 9 is going to be really hard,” she says, referring to the start of the next school year.

Teachers are paid their same hourly rate over the summer, and the district isn’t offering any additional financial incentives this year.

For Sam Petty, a fifth grade teacher, the extra income is welcome. But he regularly signs up because he sees summer school as an opportunity for a valuable learning experience.

“I use it as my own kind of training camp,” he says. “I take what I’ve learned from there to use it in the coming year.”

Last summer, the classes were crucial in helping him figure out how to effectively teach through distance learning. This year, it’s about working the kinks out of the return to in-classroom instruction.

“It’s pretty clear that we’re not going back to distance learning next year fully,” he says. “This is my chance to get my sea legs under me again.”

After more than a year at home, Ericka Njemanze’s daughter Kyra is looking forward to summer school. She’s excited to see her friends, but she’ll be bringing along her hand sanitizer.

“I’m just nervous about new things in the classroom,” she says.

Despite that anxiety, Kyra can’t wait to get off the computer and on to campus to polish her multiplication and division skills, “So you can get smarter and you can prepare for the fourth grade.”

That’s what her mom is hoping too.

Copyright 2021 KQED