Summer school in Chicago was billed as a big deal. But data is scarce on how it went.

Four students sit in a row of desks in a classroom lined with red lockers. One boy wears a blue shirt and blue mask while writing on a worksheet
Students draw things that start with the letter D on a worksheet at an Indiana charter school’s summer program in June. In Chicago, the district beefed up some existing summer programs and launched new ones this year to address the pandemic’s disruption. (Carson TerBush / Chalkbeat)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Chicago trumpeted a bigger, better summer school program this year as an all-important first step in re-engaging students amid the pandemic’s disruption. But with the new school year well underway, the district has offered little public accounting yet of how it all went. 

There has been no update on the outcomes of the summer school revamp for the school board. In response to Chalkbeat inquiries and record requests, the district provided data that is spotty and, by the district’s own admission, somewhat unreliable. 

Overall, about 80,000 Chicago Public Schools students enrolled in a wide range of summer programs — many more than last year’s all-virtual summer school drew but short of the 90,000-plus district leaders had aimed to serve. 

More established programs such as a summer orientation for incoming freshmen were fully enrolled, while new offerings such as a similar program for sophomores struggled to fill seats. But the 340,000-student district did not provide any information on how many students actually showed up and stuck with those programs. 

As every year, the district tapped certain schools to host centrally managed programs drawing students from multiple campuses, while some schools also offered in-house academic and enrichment programs. But the district also passed on $21 million in federal pandemic recovery dollars to schools, with leeway to spend it on summer offerings or afterschool programs — on top of $8 million in federal funding CPS used to expand its credit recovery and Summer Bridge programs. 

In the end, a Chalkbeat analysis found, summer programs varied significantly across campuses, with some schools hosting 20 or more opportunities while others offered just one.

District officials noted that Chicago has had all-hands-on-deck for the push to fully reopen schools this fall, making the task of compiling summer school data a much lower priority, especially given a slew of leadership vacancies. And with the federal dollars arriving relatively late in the spring, some schools instead likely chose to spend them on afterschool programming this fall.   

“We’ve been focused on reopening,” said board President Miguel del Valle last week after a lengthy board meeting where board members heard reports about attendance, reengagement efforts, and key safety data. “We’re still asking questions about the beginning of the year — that has been our focus.”

Across the country last spring, summer school was billed as a high-stakes bid to jump-start academic recovery and reengagement, even as some districts warned of staffing and student recruitment challenges after a trying 2020-21. 

But after announcing new and improved summer programs with much fanfare and an influx of federal dollars, some districts, including other large urban districts such as New York City, have not shown evidence that the investment paid off for students. That might offer a preview of how districts track their use of federal recovery funds and measure its benefits, after the feds placed little reporting and accountability requirements on school districts. 

Chicago Public Schools said in a statement that the district worked closely with school and network leaders to ensure schools offered some summer programming unless their buildings were closed for construction. In total, after the arrival of federal dollars, up to $55 million was earmarked for these programs, doubling the number of seats available.

Feds stress importance of summer school

Susana Salgado’s sixth grader was one student the district had hoped to recruit. Instead, he sat out the summer program.

The boy struggled with virtual learning last school year, falling behind academically amid technical issues and other hurdles. Last spring, Salgado found out he was flagged as a good candidate for summer school. 

With the district opting to automatically promote all elementary students to the next grade, the Summer Bridge was not a requirement, officials explained, but would be a chance to get caught up ahead of the new school year. 

Then Salgado found out the program would not be offered at James Otis World Language Academy, the West Side school her son attends. She says the school could not tell her which campus would host that program. It also wasn’t clear if he would receive a computer to do summer school work. And the family would be on the hook to provide transportation. (Otis did host in-person and virtual extended school year programs for students with disabilities and a program for English learners.)

Salgado says COVID safety was a major concern for her family, which had decided to stick with remote learning when campuses reopened for some in-person instruction last spring. What safety measures would the district take during summer school? And could she trust an unfamiliar school to implement them? 

“We decided we wouldn’t attend — even if our child repeats his classes,” she said in Spanish. “I know of many parents who told me the same thing. It was a difficult situation. But safety is the most important thing for our family.”

Districts across the country set out to expand and rethink summer school last spring to start reengaging students such as Salgado’s son, many of them tapping federal dollars from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. 

Biden himself touted the heightened importance of summer learning, while education secretary Miguel Cardona urged schools to “think outside the box” in designing summer programs and recruiting students. Gov. J.B. Pritzker also urged districts back in April to start planning summer programs early and to be ambitious. 

Chicago said it would do just that: roll out a beefed-up program that would offer more opportunities to more students than ever before. It launched several new programs and expanded others. It offered teachers and other employees who signed up to work in certain programs an extra $200 per week in incentive pay. 

But it also gave schools leeway to design their own academic and enrichment programs, arguing that would allow school leaders to tailor the offerings to their students’ needs. Then-CEO Janice Jackson said the district was gearing up to serve about 90,000 students, but was fully prepared to open up more seats.

How well did it go? It’s tough to say. 

The district declined Chalkbeat’s request to visit a program or speak with a principal about summer school. After Chalkbeat made Freedom of Information Act requests for school-level program type, capacity, enrollment, and completion data, the district only provided a list of programs by school for the roughly 500 district-run and charter campuses that hosted summer school. 

The FOIA office said it could only provide districtwide capacity and enrollment numbers but cautioned that because campuses track these metrics differently and the district does not routinely compile that data centrally, the numbers could be inaccurate. It provided no data on students actually completing summer programs.  

Back in September 2020, the district shared some summer school outcomes: Of the 58,600 students flagged as eligible for summer programs, about 21,600 enrolled, and just more than 14,200 completed them. But this year, despite the high stakes officials had said summer school carried, no information was shared with the board, and members did not inquire in public meetings.   

Overall, the list of summer programs shows that the district did deliver on offering a wide range of academic, enrichment, and athletic programs across the city. Comparing summer offerings among schools comes with a big caveat: Because CPS chooses some buildings to host programs that draw students from multiple campuses, schools don’t have complete control over what they offer. Still, program data from the district shows some schools ended up with lengthy lists of varied offerings, while others only had one option to get students back through the doors, interacting with staff and peers.

Enrico Tonti Elementary in Gage Park, for instance, hosted 27 programs: in-house tutoring or academic support for most grades, pre-K and kindergarten orientations, and a slew of arts, technology, robotics, and other clubs. Elementary schools such as Nightingale, also in Gage Park, Lavizzo in Roseland, and Peterson in North Park also offered more than 20 options each. 

On the flip side, some schools hosted only one program: a tutoring option at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary in Humboldt Park, Summer Bridge at Talcott in West Town, and an enrichment program at Pullman Elementary on the city’s Far South Side. 

Elaine Allensworth, who heads the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, said offering multiple opportunities for students this summer was important — chances for students to not only catch up academically, but also reconnect with their school communities. But she cautions that not all programs are created equal. Quality matters, too. 

Sometimes, a too-big slate of programs can be tough to manage, Allensworth said. “There are pluses and minuses to having lots of programs.” 

Stronger enrollment for established programs

Overall, the district appears to have seen strong enrollment in well-established programs that help students make key transitions. Its Freshman Connection enrollment exceeded capacity, with more than 6,500 students signed up. Kickoff to Kindergarten also seems to have drawn robust interest. 

Not so with two new programs the district launched as part of the summer school expansion: Preview to Pre-K (with enrollment at just more than a fifth of about 2,860 available seats) and Sophomore Connection (at half of 6,200 available seats). Enrollment was low in the district’s extended school year program for students with disabilities, even after the district scaled it back substantially in response to lackluster interest. In fact, the enrollment of 3,450 students was less than half that for the program’s all-virtual version in 2020. 

One elementary principal, who asked to remain anonymous because she was not authorized by the district to discuss summer school, said she was proud of the program her school designed for the first time this year. The school, which serves many homeless students and students with disabilities, offered a full-day program emphasizing socializing, emotional support, and physical activity, with academics mixed in.

The district had projected low turnout, but the actual showing came in even lower, the principal said. A fraction of the students flagged to participate showed up, with the program remaining well under capacity even after drawing students from neighboring campuses. 

“Still, I am glad we were able to offer this program,” the principal said. “We focused on social and emotional learning and social interactions with peers, and it was great to see the students so happy interacting.”

In a discussion on a Chicago parent group’s private Facebook page back in June, some parents reported that they had received detailed information from their schools about summer offerings and how to enroll. Others had not heard anything, at a time when they were raring to know their options and finalize plans. 

On that thread, one principal noted that the federal outside-of-school time dollars were a welcome addition to school budgets but arrived relatively late in the year, leaving a narrow window to do the work of recruiting staff and students and coordinating summer programs.

Salgado, the mom of the Otis sixth grader, said the family is starting the year with a lot of anxiety about returning to in-person learning — but also hopes that the boy will catch up academically. He spent a lot of time at home this summer.  

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