Excitement and laughter filled the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka earlier this summer as students from Clay County Unified School District 379 used their imaginations to make and sell lemonade, build skyscrapers with blocks, shop for groceries and change the tires on a bright red car.
“These kids are learning without knowing they are learning,” said Brett Nelson, superintendent of Clay County.
They weren’t just learning math, engineering and science though. They were learning so much more, including social-emotional skills, relationship-building skills, leadership skills and how a positive attitude can shift a bad day into a good day.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed school buildings at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, Clay County students were impacted, Nelson said.
“The effects were clear when we started back,” he said. “A priority for me was to try to make up for that learning and social-emotional loss. Our data was very, very clear that there was a significant amount of learning loss. It was also very, very evident that COVID-19 had a significant impact on the social-emotional wellness of our kids.”
With about $160,000 in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, Clay County was able to offer a six-week, full-day summer learning opportunity to 74% of its K-5 students for free. The district serves about 1,300 students. There is one school in Wakefield that serves kindergarten through 12th-grade students, and there are four buildings in Clay Center – Clay Center Community High School; Clay Center Community Middle School; Garfield Elementary School; and Lincoln Elementary School. Summer of Learning is offered at three locations – Lincoln and Garfield elementary schools in Clay Center and at Wakefield K-12 in Wakefield.
“It’s the best use of the money,” Nelson said. “We can keep the kids with us this summer and try to make up for learning loss. There is no better way to spend the ESSER funds we have. The buzz about it in our community and our town is so cool. I hope it has a significant impact on student learning and social-emotional readiness to come back in the fall.”
Nelson and his team of teachers began planning for the Summer of Learning in March. He asked his leadership team to help out with ideas to try to get as many students as possible involved. But, Nelson said, their thoughts kept going back to the traditional summer school mindset.
“We had to think outside of our traditional mindset,” he said. “What if we made a summer program that is so attractive, families and students can’t say no? We had to remove as many barriers as possible.”
That included offering transportation to and from the program, along with breakfast, lunch and snack, and extended hours – from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
“We put together a rockstar team,” Nelson said. “The team that did this knocked it out of the park. We hope word spreads like wildfire. We are planning to offer something similar or even better for next summer – maybe even into the summer of 24. Our goal for next summer is 100% (participation).”
Jennifer Pfizenmaier, who has been a teacher for 15 years in Clay County, has been helping out with the summer program and attended the first week – June 7-10 – where more than 190 students visited the Discovery Center in Topeka, spent time outdoors at parks and even rode an Orphan Train in Concordia
“That was a huge, crazy time,” she said with a laugh. “It was the best time getting to go on all of the field trips, watching the older kids lead the younger kids and the connections they were making. There was a lot of relationship building. They are using those soft skills we didn’t get to use last year. Personalities have flourished.”
Students agreed. Being able to go places they have never been was a highlight for many students. They also have enjoyed learning about the library, touring the zoo, eating pizza for lunch and finding out what happens when five Mentos mints are placed in a pop bottle.
The program will end July 22. Each of the six weeks had a theme, including Water Week; Art, Construction and Design; Red, White and Blue; Exploration; and Olympic Week. Students start the day off with breakfast and morning gathering time. Next, they have learning time and recess. There’s also hands-on learning, community time and lunch. Afternoon options include swimming, trips to the library, crafts, games and other learning activities.
Edith Sorenson has taught at the district for 13 years and is the program director for Project Lead (an after-school program). Project Lead has offered a summer school program in previous years. However, Sorenson said, the budget was very small and only 50 students were able to attend.
“As an educator, as a parent, as a human being, it is great to be able to provide for kids whenever you can, whether or not there is a pandemic,” she said.
But the 2020-2021 school year was difficult with masks and plexiglass between teachers and students.
So, seeing “kids being kids” the first week of the Summer of Learning program was special, she said.
“Friendships are being formed,” Sorenson said. “The kids are so happy. Parents and teachers were a little apprehensive (about the summer program), but I can’t say enough about how far a positive attitude can take a program or a tool – or even a day. We had that willingness to pull together. You can’t put a dollar amount on it, and you can’t buy it.”
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