‘These F’s are tied to the pandemic’: Thousands of Anchorage students start summer school

Kenneth Hemenway, an English teacher at South High School, teaches a group of high school students from across the district during a morning summer school class at Hanshew Middle School in Anchorage on June 4, 2021. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Thousands of Alaska students are starting summer school as the Anchorage School District launches its largest summer program ever.

After a year of learning during a pandemic, administrators say summer school will start to address some of the learning loss they know happened. And they hope it will help rebuild kids’ relationships to school.

ASD’s summer program started the first week of June. Kenneth Hemenway, an English teacher at South High School during the normal school year, has about 20 high school students from across the district in his morning class.

Hemenway said he appreciates having the extra time with students this year because of the unique impacts the pandemic had on each one. Some did well in online classes, and others didn’t.

“There are going to be a lot of kids that lacked where they should be as far as proficiency and where they ended up last year,” Hemenway said. “And that’s a gap that we got to fill.”

It’s a big push. Normally the district offers just a single summer program to about 750 students, mostly high schoolers, who need to make up failed classes or want to get ahead. The district has also offered virtual learning opportunities to about 1,000 students who want to take courses to get ahead, and it’s had small grant-funded elementary programs in the past.

But this year, at least 5,300 students — 3,500 elementary and 1,800 secondary — are enrolled in summer school, doing everything from recovering credits to enrichment to tutoring. Another 1,800 are taking classes online.

And that’s just for the first summer school block. The district will have another block in July.

The summer program is free for students, and the district is providing transportation for those in elementary school. Students also get free breakfast and lunch.

This year’s summer school is all about addressing learning loss and getting them ready for fall classes, said district Secondary Director Marty Lang.

Standardized testing has been complicated and inconsistent over the past year, providing a murky picture of where students are academically.

Getting a grasp on who needed additional help began toward the end of the school year when students were able to have some in-person learning. While grades and assessments were strong indicators, teachers interactions with students largely informed which students were recommended to attend summer school. Lang said the goals of summer school for these students is two-fold.

“To address some of the learning loss [and] get students comfortable back in the classroom for those who haven’t returned yet to that in person environment, and really to re-engage and get kids excited in those content areas about learning as well,” he said.

Lisa Mounds-Craft is serving as a high school principal for the summer program. She said the program will give teachers and students more face-to-face time together to gage where learning is at but also to build relationships and dive deeper into the challenges of the past year.

“The circumstances around these F’s that we’re seeing are all really tied to the pandemic,” Mounds-Craft said. “Being at home for a whole year, on your own and trying to navigate zooms and not having the internet or not having food and oversleeping, or having to share one computer with three or four brothers and sisters and parents who are working from home. So this summer school is different. Kids are coming from a different place.”

Mounds-Craft, a former school counselor, said she’s spent these early days simply having conversations with students and getting to know them.

More than anything she wants summer school to be a safe, caring and relaxing environment that students want to come to and feel comfortable in. There’s donuts and apple juice in the hallways that students can grab. Support staff place oldies over the speakers.

She wants it to be place where students can open up.

Dawn Anderson serves as one of the school DJs in the morning playing throwback 90s jams. She’s also a science teacher and she agrees with this year’s approach to summer school.

“I feel like we all just need a giant hug. We all just need a little attention right now. We all need a little bit of something to keep us going,” Anderson said. “I think it’s all going to be okay. Big deep breath. Big hug for everyone. We’ll be on our way.”

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