After a year of mostly remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 expanded its summer learning programs in 2021, but far fewer families opted to participate than administrators had anticipated.

The 2021 Summer Learning Report, included with meeting materials for the Dec. 6 Curriculum and Policy Committee meeting, said 568 students enrolled in summer learning, filling just 54% of the 1,049 general education program seats offered. There were 323 students for the 533 available special education seats (61% filled).

The report noted that “some programs also struggled to maintain an 80% attendance rate,” particularly those that served older students or were scheduled for five to six weeks as opposed to three weeks.

At the Dec. 6 committee meeting, Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said anecdotal explanations for the low enrollment ranged from hesitancy to return to school because of fear of COVID-19 exposure to parents deciding, “We just need a break and we can finally take a road trip to go see some family.”

One of the challenges attracting participants that Beardsley identified was offering “the type of summer learning that would engage our middle schoolers. … You need more engaging programs and better opportunities that kids are really going to want to step into.”

Included in Beardsley’s presentation was a slide that showed the priority learning groups identified by the Illinois State Board of Education: early childhood, special education, emergent bilingual, students facing homelessness, those with free or reduced lunch status and students who have demonstrated a lack of engagement in current learning models. Beardsley added that District 65 also prioritized students who were performing below grade level.

In previous years, summer learning was focused on mitigating summer learning loss and serving students who had not met grade level expectations or who may not have had access to opportunities for academic enrichment.

But in 2021, “accelerating the achievement of students who had been adversely affected by essentially, pandemic learning,” was the vision for the summer learning program, according to Beardsley, who added that “part of the learning in the work over the summer was helping to bring kids back into school in a positive and productive way and to ease that transition back into learning in school buildings.”

The demographic breakdown of students enrolled in 2021 summer learning programs was 39% Black, 41% Hispanic, 4% multiracial, 12% white and 3% Asian, with 66% qualifying for free or reduced-fee lunch.

District 65 summer learning in 2019 and 2020

In summer 2019, the district served 67 more students than in 2021, with a total enrollment of 958, according to a RoundTable article from Jan. 9, 2020. Of that total, 325 students were enrolled in the Extended School Year program for students with disabilities who were eligible for summer services through their Individualized Education Program. The remaining 633 students were recommended by principals and teachers to participate in nonmandatory general education programs that were focused on improving literacy, math and social and emotional learning, as well as increasing access to enrichment opportunities. The summer 2019 learners’ demographics were 40% Black, 31% Hispanic, 16% white, 7% multiracial and 4% Asian, with 67% qualifying for free or reduced-fee lunch. 

In 2020, District 65’s summer learning plans were impeded by “the uncertainty of when in-person learning would resume,” according to a report included in materials for the school board meeting on Nov. 16, 2020.

Superintendent Devon Horton initiated a 2020 Sylvan Summer Scholarship program to provide additional academic support for selected students, who were identified by early assessment data or seen as underengaged during remote learning. Families of identified summer learning candidates were notified of the scholarship opportunity, valued at $1,500, which included reading and math enrichment courses using the Zoom platform, with eight to 10 students per instructor.

The November 2020 report said 73 students completed the Sylvan summer program that year, with 63% of students showing growth in math and 50% in reading. In addition, 647 special education and emerging bilingual students were served by the district that summer. The summer learner student population was 43% Black, 28% Hispanic, 17% white, 8% multiracial and 4% Asian.

2021 partner selection and accountability

Seventeen summer programs were offered in 2021, with seven for special education students. Nine were selected through a formal Request for Proposal submission and review process. The nine external general education partners were Sylvan Learning of Skokie-Niles, Expeditionary Learning through Creating Outdoor Learning Spaces, Huntington Tutoring, Jumpstart ECC, Summer Literacy Intensive, Newcomer Program, TWI Enrichment: Bessie Rhodes, YMCA Summer Learning Program and YMCA Summer STEAM.

At the Dec. 6 meeting, Beardsley said each of the nine programs was focused on achieving predefined SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) goals; four achieved and five partially met their goals. Beardsley said that her team searched for partners that would afford “academic outcomes, particularly literacy and math. But also STEM competencies as well as social-emotional learning.” 

Board member Sergio Hernandez stressed the importance of selecting programs that are aligned with the district’s standards-based learning goals and “instruction that is high rigor.” Superintendent Horton concurred, adding that the district should calculate a “return on investment” that takes into account program costs, goals met and student outcomes.

Beardsley stated that “the power of the [Request for Proposal] is casting the net more widely, because then we can potentially establish new partnerships that could meet needs that we’re not yet meeting.” She called for continuing to fine-tune the process of proposal evaluation to ensure the “strongest possible programs.”

Budget and funding

The proposed budget to fund 1,049 general education program seats in 2021 was $1,179,636, with $204,400 coming from federal Title I and Title III funds (money allocated for low-income and English-learning students, respectively), $613,789 from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and $360,347 in local funds.

Given the low enrollment, only 57.4% of the budgeted general education funds were spent for summer 2021, according to Beardsley’s report. 

Although only 61% of the allotted special services program seats were filled, 99% of that $395,011 budget was spent. Beardsley said at the meeting that the district faced unexpected transportation costs due to a new busing contract, as well as “additional monitors and [personal protective equipment] costs associated with COVID-related safety precautions” to accommodate a second Summer Learning Session Plus (funded by ESSER).

Based on the lower than expected registration for summer 2021, Beardsley said that fewer seats – though still more than pre-pandemic numbers – will be offered in 2022, which will reduce the amount of funding needed.

Summer 2022

The proposed budget for summer 2022 is $550,000, according to Beardsley, of which $450,000 is already allocated in the district budget and the remaining $100,000 would come from Title I funds. The additional $280,000 for special education programs is included in the district budget.

Beardsley acknowledged that the proposed budgets are subject to change, as was the case with last summer’s transportation adjustment. “If we have to continue to have some of the same costs, additional staffing in place and things like that, that may need to be adjusted upward.” 

In planning for summer 2022, Beardsley’s team is evaluating the feasibility of streamlining and simplifying the registration process. Included in the December report is mention of a possible open registration window of two to three weeks “that could be followed with student placement into programs based on priority indicators, including free and reduced lunch status and student academic need, measured by the MAP [Measures of Academic Progress] assessment.”  

Beardsley said program proposal evaluations and a subsequent menu of recommended summer learning programs will be submitted to the board in mid-January, with promotion of summer learning program options to begin during parent conferences in February.

Bessie Mbadugha

Bessie N. A. Mbadugha took a hiatus from her previous life as a Chemistry professor to devote more time to her family, and became an active leader in numerous community initiatives in Hillsborough, North...

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