Detroit families will have fewer summer school options this year as district scales back programs

Man in blue t-shirt stands at front of classroom, next to a projection screen, instructing students.
Summer school programming will be limited in the Detroit Pubilc Schools Community District this year, as the district pulls back on the ambitious offerings it provided over the last two years due to the end of COVID relief funding. (Lori Higgins / Chalkbeat)

Detroit parent Cazar Baird likes her kids to have something to do during the summer. In the past, she searched for dance programs or church-sponsored basketball clinics to keep her three children busy. 

When she found out last year that the Detroit school district was offering expanded summer programming at her youngest son’s school, she quickly took advantage.

It has been the best way to “keep him sharp and active” over the summer months, Baird said. And unlike other summer camps around the city, it has been free.

But as her son neared the end of third grade at Gompers Elementary-Middle School this week, Baird was still figuring out where to send him this summer. 

That’s because the Detroit Public Schools Community District no longer plans to have the robust summer learning programs it offered to district families over the past two years, using COVID relief aid from the federal government. It’s pivoting back to a narrower range of offerings: course recovery for missed or failed classes to students in grades 8-12, a transition program for incoming kindergarteners, and some limited activities in partnership with local recreation centers and public libraries.

DPSCD was among the many Michigan school districts that used COVID relief aid to beef up their summer programming, offering anything from credit recovery to camps focused on robotics, sports, and culinary arts. The expanded options came at the right time for students struggling with the academic impact of the pandemic and parents struggling with child care. Many parents and students have been looking for extra study time, fun activities, and opportunities to make up credits.

DPSCD spent a combined $21 million on programs over the past two summers, and its Summer Learning Experiences program was spotlighted by the White House in a tour by U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and first lady Jill Biden of summer school programs funded by COVID relief aid. 

But by the end of this school year, DPSCD will have spent or allocated the $1.27 billion it received in COVID funding, and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said it would be tough to justify continued investment in expanded summer school. 

The summer programs helped keep some students engaged, he said, but they were not nearly as successful as officials hoped.

“There isn’t concrete evidence that summer school leads to raising student achievement in the aggregate, because many students do not attend summer school,” Vitti told families and community members at a virtual community meeting Monday. 

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When the district had COVID relief money to spend, Vitti said, more than 40,000 K-8 students were eligible to attend. But only 900 signed up, and barely a third of them actually attended.

“And summer school is only for four to five weeks,” he said. “So you really can’t make up a whole year over the summer. It’s great to offer it, but it’s not directly linked to student achievement as a district.”

That’s not to say the money was a waste. The summer programming “allowed families and students to overcome their fears of returning to school in person,” Vitti said, and “provided families and students with a safe and reliable child care option during the summer.” 

That’s something Baird appreciated about the district’s summer programming.

“Some parents can’t afford a lot of these summer camp programs, because they have more than one child to provide for,” she said.

“Most of these programs are weekly or biweekly, but it’s still per child, and like $200 or $240, or $180, and that’s a lot of money.”

Other districts are continuing with their extensive summer learning plans, using what’s left of the money they received under the federal aid programs, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER.

Ypsilanti Community Schools has already registered 1,280 students — about a third of its total enrollment — for its Grizzly Learning Camp, according to district spokesperson Leslie Davis. The district is spending about $1.5 million on summer school, using ESSER dollars and state funds. The program offers a mix of robotics and sports instruction, as well as credit recovery classes for students who need them. 

Southfield Public Schools has spent roughly $465,000 in COVID relief money between last year and this year to bolster its summer programming, emphasizing math and literacy instruction for students who have fallen behind, and providing field trips as well as electives in STEM, yoga, and physical education.

In Detroit, the scaling back of summer school comes amid discussions about broader budget cuts the district wants to make to account for the depletion of federal COVID aid and declining enrollment

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Vitti said DPSCD would need roughly $8 million to continue offering the same academic and extracurricular summer programs to K-8 students that it provided through Summer Learning Experiences.

Some relief could come from Lansing, where the Legislature is getting set to take up a school aid budget that may provide another infusion of money for DPSCD. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s school aid budget proposal recommends appropriating $94.4 million to the district to settle a 2016 “right to read” lawsuit against the state. 

While the settlement money is strictly limited to supporting the district’s literacy plan, Vitti said, the extra funding would allow the district to reallocate other dollars toward bringing back other ESSER-funded initiatives such as expanding after school and summer programming, and placing contracted nurses in every school. 

In the meantime, DPSCD is still looking to provide some summer programming for its families. The district’s Office of Family and Community Engagement is partnering with the Detroit Public Library to offer summer reading activities from July 10 to Aug. 4, with limited registration.

DPSCD is also expanding its Kindergarten Boot Camp, a four-week program designed to help students and families transition from preschool to kindergarten. The two sessions will operate from June 20 through July 14, and July 10 through Aug. 4. 

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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