Portland schools optimistic about ambitious summer programs

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Federal coronavirus funds have given the Portland Public Schools an opportunity to offer students more robust summer programming than ever, but staffing concerns, a short timeline for planning, and continuing COVID-19 restrictions will make implementation difficult.

School officials said the effect of the pandemic on students’ attendance, school performance, and mental health has made the need for summer programming more urgent this year than ever. They said the School Department aims to carry out programs in all city schools this summer as a way to help offset the past year’s negative effects.

Melea Nalli, Portland’s assistant superintendent
for teaching and learning: “People need a break. And yet we are trying to hire more people than ever before to work in the summer.” (Courtesy Portland Public Schools)

Melea Nalli, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, told the School Board May 4 city schools have “sufficient resources for the first time in many, many years” to offer widespread, in-depth summer programming that would involve partnering with community organizations for $500,000 worth of “camp-like” offerings. 

The total budget for all planned summer programs this year is more than $1.8 million, with a goal to double the number of students who typically enroll in summer school.

At the same time, however, Nalli said the district is facing some “real constraints and barriers” to achieve the programming, including having adequate time to plan. She said administrators found out how much federal funding schools would receive for summer programming around the same time they were planning to return students to school for more in-person learning.

“People need a break,” Nalli said. “And yet we are trying to hire more people than ever before to work in the summer.”

To carry out the more extensive programs, Portland Public Schools would need 225 staffers; as of last week, just under 200 employees had applied to work this summer. Staffing shortages are especially evident for positions like school nurses and special education instruction.

Nalli’s presentation cited national data from Attuned Education Partners, which found U.S. students this school year have acquired between 50 percent and 90 percent of learning content compared to a typical year of learning prior to the pandemic.

The rates of content acquired were far lower for students in low-income schools and schools with larger shares of students of color, Attuned Education Partners found.

Nalli said the statistics were reflected locally in a higher rate of chronic absences, which affected more students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and a higher non-pass rate in high schools.

Summer offerings will vary from school to school. At the elementary level programming will primarily focus on science and engineering, literacy, and social-emotional learning, while middle school programming will concentrate on English and math standards. There will be targeted programming at the high school level for students at each school.

Determining which students will be allowed to participate in summer programming also varies by grade. At the elementary level, literacy assessment data, student social-emotional needs, and whether a student has a sibling in the program will help determine who will fill the 452 available seats.

Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers with unmet educational standards or “incomplete” marks or failures in courses will participate in the appropriate programs, filling 330 slots. 

Additional community partner programs planned for this summer include early childhood playgroups to encourage social skills among preschool and kindergarteners; programs for high school students to recover credits missed during the year, and programs to help rising middle-schoolers and high school freshmen prepare for the next school year.

Several components of summer planning are still in progress. Administrators hope to communicate available opportunities to qualifying families by May 21.

Nalli said there is also potential for the program to expand further next summer when administrators expect to have the same funding source.

“I think it’s very possible that we expand it even more next summer,” she said. “But at this point (we’re trying) to go for something ambitious yet realistic.”