Inside Denver’s attempt to slow ‘summer slide’ for English language learners and struggling readers

It’s summer break, but 14 rising third-graders spent a recent morning at Denver’s McMeen Elementary learning about proper nouns. After fastening imaginary bow ties around their necks — a reminder that the nouns were “proper” — the students called out words that fit the bill.

“Denver!” one student said.

“Libya!” said another.

When the teacher asked for a person instead of a place, someone shouted, “Justin Bieber!”

“Oh, I love it!” the teacher said.

Some of the 14 students were learning English as a second language. Others were native English speakers who struggle in reading. For 3½ weeks this summer, they all signed up to spend their mornings practicing literacy and language skills, and their afternoons doing fun activities as part of Denver Public Schools’ “summer academy.”

The academy, which is free for families, has several purposes. It started years ago as a way to help English language learners maintain the progress they made during the school year. For nearly 30,000 of Denver’s 93,000 students, English is a second language; the most common first language is Spanish. Denver Public Schools has for decades been under a federal court order to better serve English language learners, and the academy is part of its strategy.

Recently, the district has extended summer academy invitations to any students in kindergarten through third grade identified as reading “significantly below grade level,” who could use a similar literacy boost. The academy also serves as a training ground for teachers new to the district who must learn the way Denver teaches English language development.

“It’s been a great learning experience for me,” said Carly Edwards, who moved to Denver from Ohio a few weeks ago to take a fifth-grade teaching job here.

Though Edwards has five years of teaching experience, she’d never taught English language learners before. In addition to working at the summer academy, she is also taking English language development courses that are required of all new Denver teachers. Doing the training over the summer will better prepare her for the fall and free her up during the school year, she said.

“Every single thing I’m learning, I can think of the student and I’m applying it,” Edwards said of the rising third-graders she’s teaching at McMeen this summer.

It costs about $2 million to run the summer academy, and the district pays for it with a mix of general fund dollars, revenue from a voter-approved tax increase, and state money attached to Colorado’s READ Act, which aims to get students reading by the end of third grade.

The district has attempted over the years to measure the effectiveness of the academy, but officials said they’ve struggled to find the best way.

An oral language test shows students made statistically significant progress from the beginning of the academy to the end. But reading tests taken in the spring before summer academy and the fall afterward reveal less success in curbing the “summer slide,” or the loss of skills that can happen over the summer. Evidence suggests that skill loss is more acute for language learners who live in homes where English is rarely spoken.

One challenge is that the summer academy is only 3½ weeks long, running this year from June 11 to July 3 at 16 different schools. It used to be longer, but district officials shortened it after noticing that attendance dropped off after the Fourth of July holiday.

Attendance in general is another barrier. Summer academy is voluntary, and although more than 11,000 students were eligible this year, only 3,000 signed up — and just 2,000 showed up. Students tend to drop in and out depending on family vacation plans, and attendance sunk even lower after reports that federal immigration authorities would conduct raids in Denver.

In an attempt to attract more participants, the district began inviting eligible students’ siblings to attend free, full-day camps of fun activities run by local organizations and paid for with some of the voter-approved tax revenue. The district has had the opposite attendance issue there; whereas 300 siblings signed up, about 500 showed up this year.

The district also narrowed the academic scope this year in the hopes that doing fewer things would allow it to do those things better, officials said. Instead of serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade, the academic portion now stops at third grade.

And seeing a need for more social and emotional support for summer academy students, officials this year hired six nurses and three social workers to float between the schools, in addition to the 150 teachers and 16 principals who run the academic instruction.

“We believe it has to be a safe place before we can have a learning place,” said Boris Costa-Guerra, a senior program manager who spends all year planning summer academy.

Though the data may be mixed, anecdotal evidence suggests the extra academic practice and attention from teachers is making a difference for students who attend.

Edwards and her co-teacher, Alexandra Caldwell, said they’ve seen tremendous growth in just a few weeks. Their classroom is a vibrant place where students are encouraged to write questions on sticky notes and post them to a “wonder wall.” A unit on bugs has inspired questions such as, “I want to know do butterflies sleep,” and “I wonder if a spider has a family.”

On a recent morning, after learning about proper nouns, the students grabbed black-and-white composition notebooks and headed outside to hunt for insects. Students who’d shown up to summer academy quiet and reserved, hoodies pulled up and shy to speak for fear of saying the wrong word, bounded down the sidewalk in two jumbly lines.

They squealed at finding a colony of ants, huddled around a tree leaf to inspect tiny red dots that one student assured the rest were insect eggs, and stood at the edge of a muddy pond, marveling at the blue dragonflies that hovered over its surface.

They stopped occasionally to listen to bird songs, avoid stepping in the goose poop that littered the grass, and scribble observations in their notebooks.

But they did not stop wondering.

“I wonder why they call them ‘daddy longlegs,’” one student said after spotting a spider.

“Maybe because they’re daddies with long legs,” his classmate said.