Students in DeForest Area School District summer school classes

Teachers in DeForest schools are aiming to use the four weeks of summer school classes to integrate critical academic skills into group activities and bring enthusiasm to learning after a trying school year.

Amid the pressure of opening schools after the historic 2020-2021 school year, summer school teachers are prioritizing enthusiasm for learning.

Summer school classes started on July 6 and have been going well, according Summer School Principal Lynn Sisco.

“The feedback that we’ve gotten from them has been great,” said Sisco, “the teachers have been bringing back feedback that the kids are engaged and excited about being there.”

DeForest Area School District offers two sections of each grade level with the exception of 9th grade, which has one section due to lesser enrollment. One of the primary challenges in coordinating the program has been in getting enough teachers for summer classrooms. One factor has been that after the stresses of the past year, many teachers are burned out and less willing to sign on for additional summer duties.

Student enrollment has been well over double the average of previous years. Between 2017, 2018, and 2019, summer school enrollment averaged 127 students in kindergarten through 8th grade classes. This year 308 students are enrolled.

Teaching these classes are 13 DeForest district teachers, four long-term substitutes, and two teachers brought in from outside the district, all licensed for teaching their respective grade levels.

In the past year additional teachers have been hired to allow expansion of the remedial program, bringing in more kids. There is also a goal of de-stigmatizing summer school classes and opening them up even more next year.

“This year we are still building on how summer school has been done with a remedial model focusing on building up the skills that the students will need for the fall,” said Sisco. “We are shifting more towards enrichment and focusing on engagement and really re-sparking that desire for learning among our students, and so we are going to be focusing on literacy and math, and then adding in an enrichment component.”

Administrators would like to see the program opened up to all students, which would total 500 to 600, but current staffing cannot support that scale of a program. Since they can only open the program so far, administrators have targeted students of greater need, according to Director of Instruction Rebecca Toetz.

In the previous week’s Board of Education meeting, Toetz briefed board members on preliminary measures of post-COVID learning loss, which showed that although DeForest fared better than the national average, there was still lost ground that would need to be addressed in summer and fall classes.

“Because we were restricted by staffing for summer school ,we thought it was important to target and invite the students that would most benefit from extra learning and engagement,” said Toetz. “And so we used iReady and teacher recommendation--and teacher recommendation came from engagement as well, as far as students who weren’t as engaged in virtual learning.”

Responses would suggest that the outreach was effective, according to Sisco, who said a wait list was needed when classes reached capacity.

“The focus is on engagement and providing it in an enrichment-based way,” said Sisco. “And so many of our teachers are incorporating those skills and strategies in a hands-on way through science experiments, different kinds of activities, and things like that.”

One of the high points, she said, has been in making rounds at classrooms and seeing students complain that they aren’t ready for “independent reading” to be over.

“They’re excited and really want to keep doing it,” said Sisco, “so that’s promising to see that they are encouraged by some of the freedom and choice that summer school is allowing them to have to do their learning.”

Teachers are working to include curriculum in activities and creative group projects, like a 6th grade preview in which students are developing formulas for new soda flavors through trial and error, then creating and writing business plans.

“Kids were like, ‘Math is so much fun!’” said Sisco, “and I was saying, ‘Yes, it is so much fun!’”

For many teachers there is almost a thrill to have their energy refocused on creative solutions for teaching, as opposed to solutions for distancing, disinfecting and tech support.

“I have a team that is working on social-emotional learning,” said Toetz, “and it’s just so great to not be focusing on the pandemic: what are those competencies, how do we teach to those groups?”

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