summer learning loss

This Indiana summer program is fighting summer learning loss. Here’s how

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
Seventh-grade students at Horizons are currently reading author Paul Fleischman’s “Seedfolks,” a novel about building community and discovering tolerance. By the end of the course, students will be able to identify historical figures from the civil rights movement and memorialize them within the community.

The upside of summer, for many students: No homework.

The downside: Losing a lot of what they learned during the school year.

A central Indiana summer program is trying to reverse this widespread backsliding, which research has shown can be equivalent to two to three months of lost reading ability.

Trinity Sanders, 14, is one of 150 Indianapolis students spending six weeks this summer at Horizons, an academic camp program for students from low-income families, whose summer learning loss can be steeper than that of their more affluent peers.

“It keeps me motivated to want to go to school because I’m ahead of everybody since I’m just not at home during the summertime,” Trinity, now in her ninth and final year at Horizons, told Chalkbeat.

Horizons at St. Richard’s Episcopal School is the local arm of a larger tuition-free program serving rising kindergartners through ninth-graders in 18 states. To be eligible, students must qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. When they start at Horizons, two-thirds of students are performing below grade level in math and literacy.

More than 25 local companies and nonprofits fund the Indianapolis program, which the Indianapolis-based education advocacy group The Mind Trust is citing as a model for what can  be done statewide to reduce summer learning loss.

The Mind Trust, which regularly tours Indiana schools, summer programs, and adult high schools, organized a visit last week to a Horizons site at Butler University. Some 30 Indiana educators and community leaders came along to hear about Horizons’ approach to summer enrichment and to eradicating learning loss among its students.

“Oftentimes quality programs, not on purpose, can exclude the families who need it the most,” Marquisha Bridgeman, senior director of community engagement at The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat. “Horizons is very intentional [about] making sure they reach families who are going to be best served by their program.”

Trinity, an aspiring doctor, told the visitors about her experience at Horizons.

During the summer program, each level is assigned a theme unique to their class, and study a novel based on that theme. This summer, such themes include “Plants and Nature,” “Building Healthy Communities,” and “Discovery through the Five Senses.” During the course of the summer, students are expected to complete independent projects related to that theme.

The eighth-grade theme, this year, is “A Force for Good.” Students are tasked with developing their own idea for a nonprofit organization. On field trips to the Children’s Museum and the Mid-North Food Pantry, they learn more about nonprofit operations.

The nonprofit Trinity wants to develop promotes gun control and gun safety. Later this summer, she’ll have an opportunity to present the group’s mission statement, volunteer plans, and budget to a panel of nonprofit professionals. The panel will assess which proposals are worth acting on.

“I hope my nonprofit is one of the ones they pick to actually consider trying to make,” Trinity said. “With the gun violence, I think I want to do one that keeps kids safe and that keeps them away from gun violence — even adults, too.”

Using the STAR assessment —  a test used to assess student growth in areas such as math and literacy — Horizons found that its students show two- to three-month average gains in reading and math skills. That puts them four- to six-months ahead of where they have would otherwise been at the beginning of the next school year.

Horizons focuses on youth most at risk of falling behind.

A 2017 Children’s Defense Fund report found that 77 percent of Indiana’s eighth-grade students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch performed below grade level in reading, and 76 percent of these same children performed below grade level in math in 2015.

By contrast, 49 percent of students from higher-income families performed below grade level in both reading and math.

Teachers also use data from the STAR assessment, which students take at the beginning and  end of the summer, to determine what areas students need the most help in. This helps shape classroom content.

Nick Stewart is the coordinator for Horizons’ site at Butler University, where middle school students spend their day. He said Horizons is focused on hands-on learning, which means more projects and fewer worksheets.

“You’re going to see students working to solve real-world problems with real-world solutions,” Stewart said. “They’re engaging content in a way that matters to them.”

Which makes the program popular with students and parents.

Although Trinity will age out of the program after this summer, she said she wants to come back as an intern when she’s in high school. “This is the place for me,” she said.

Like Trinity, 90 percent of last year’s Horizons students in Indianapolis returned this summer. There are nearly 100 families are on a waiting list.

“It’s great in one regard and sad in another regard,” said Shanna Martin, executive director of Horizons at St. Richard’s. “It’s helping us know there really is a lot of need out there as we think and plan for the future and other opportunities to expand and grow.”

To that end, the program will also serve Indianapolis Public Schools students during fall, winter, and spring breaks in the upcoming school year. Horizons will partner with Tabernacle Presbyterian Church to offer programming and meals at the church to students from nearby School 43, School 48, and School 60.

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”

This Air Force veteran switched to teaching, but his military mindset still comes in handy

PHOTO: Ariel Skelley | Getty Images

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Daniel Ganoza spent years in the U.S. Air Force before becoming a science teacher at Woodland Park High School west of Colorado Springs. Despite the career switch, he found the military mindset useful in the classroom.

“In the Air Force everyone is valuable to the mission,” he said. “You have no choice in training them the best you can. The mission depends on it and your reputation as a leader depends on your folks knowing their job.”

Ganoza, who won the 2018 Secondary Excellence in Teaching award from the Colorado Association of Science Teachers, talked about how the military mentality motivates students, why environmental science is so important for the current generation, and how vaping and marijuana are affecting his school.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

PHOTO: Daniel Ganoza
Daniel Ganoza, right, flying with Iraqi troops on a C-130 aircraft, during his Air Force career.

I had selfish reasons for wanting to be a teacher. When I was in the Air Force I had been away from home so much. My oldest two daughters were born and graduated high school while I was still in the military and I’m afraid I missed much of their growing up.

But my youngest child, my son, was starting high school as I was set to leave the military. What a better way for me to try to connect with my son than to be a teacher at his school, to have him and his friends in class, and to coach their sports teams? And it worked. For my first four years of teaching my son was a student in my school. He graduated last year.

How has your experience in the Air Force shaped your approach to teaching?

Everyone in the Air Force was necessary to complete the mission and that is the same mindset I try to bring to the classroom. In the military, every person had value and their success influenced your success. If they failed, it made things harder on the whole organization.

Unfortunately, some kids fail my class and some kids drop out of school. But if I treat my students as if they are one of my troops in the military — if they feel like they are important to me and that I need them to do well, if they feel like my success depends on their success, if they feel like there is something unique and special about them that makes them valuable to me — then maybe for some kids that’s the difference it takes.

How do you get to know your students?

PHOTO: Daniel Ganoza
Teacher Daniel Ganoza, first row on left, with his students during their annual trip to Arches National Park.

We all get to know our students in the classroom. But those students I know the most are those students I see outside of the classroom. Whether it be weekend field trips or optional Saturday trainings or even the high school soccer and basketball teams I coach, those kids are the ones I get to know the best.

I suppose we all put in our time during the duty day, but when kids see you outside of those prescribed hours, when kids know you don’t have to be there, they appreciate that and let their guard down a little.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Not so much a favorite lesson, but my favorite course to teach is environmental science. To be honest, I don’t think I thought about environmental issues during my most of my life. But now that I teach it, the subject is everywhere.

There are some really life-altering environmental decisions that the generation of kids I teach is going to have to make someday (thanks to my generation and past generations). Without being too much of an alarmist, I need to make them aware. This is about as deep into math as I get. Scientists say the earth has enough resources for 10 billion to 12 billion people, and we are at around 7.5 billion now. We are adding 1 million people to our planet every five days.

We reach capacity when kids in this generation are in their prime. I don’t know the answer, but these kids are going to have to figure it out. I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist — that has had negative connotations most of my life. But I do find this topic fascinating, I appreciate the work that environmental scientists do, and I’m nervous about potential environmental outcomes if we as a people are not careful.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

Someone told me once, “Be like a duck — calm above the water while paddling frantically below.” I pretend that nothing rattles me or makes me feel helpless, although secretly there are many things that would — missing my notes for the day, my overhead projector, my thumb drive with my lesson plans, my student aides who help me in so many ways, and a functioning printer and copier. Oh yeah, and Coke Zero Vanilla.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Vaping. Our school is waging a war against vaping. The kids just don’t seem to understand how bad it is for you. It is so easy for them to get it in the community and then they bring it to school and some of them get caught and it just doesn’t register that vaping is bad.

Also marijuana. I have a few kids in class that reek of marijuana — because their parents smoke it legally in their homes or illegally in their cars. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that these students are not smoking it, but if they’re surrounded by marijuana fumes at home, it can’t be good. And their grades and motivation usually reflect it.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A few years ago I was a member of our school’s attendance committee. If a student has 13 or more absences in a class in a semester they automatically fail that class (regardless of their grade) unless they submit an appeal to the attendance committee. Unless there is something medical going on, appeals are almost always rejected.

In one case, a young lady gave an appeal — she was a senior and needed the credits to graduate, but had been absent a considerable amount of time. Although there was nothing extraordinary about her story, we showed a little grace and we allowed her to graduate. I’m not sure why, it just felt right.

Recently, I ran into her in our little town where she was working at a Sonic restaurant. She remembered that I was part of the decision to allow her to graduate. She was very grateful and seemed excited to see me. She told me that she got pregnant toward the end of her senior year, but didn’t know it until after graduation. She is married now, her baby is healthy, and she is working hard to try to make ends meet. She’ll be fine, but she has a tough road in front of her.

I scare myself thinking now how much harder I would have made this young woman’s life if I would have followed our norms and denied her the credits she needed to graduate. Sometimes grace has a way of humbling you and reminding you that one of the best attributes you can have is kindness.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Some of the kids I teach have impossible home life situations. That’s the most difficult part of being a teacher — when something happens to a great kid that makes them jump into survival mode and justifies them putting academics as the lowest priority, and you are powerless to help. I don’t like being in that spot because I feel I should do something to help. I try, but often it’s just not enough, and then I feel like I’ve failed them.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

Before teaching I thought that every kid should be on a college-bound track. I brought that into my first year of teaching. But now I understand that some kids will go to college and some kids won’t, and there is nothing wrong with that. Although college is a fine path to take, going to a trade school or joining the military right out of high school might be the right choice for some.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Right now, I’m reading “Killing England: The Brutal Struggle for American Independence” by Bill O’Reilly.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Kids just want someone to think they are important and care for them. I have to believe that because I’m short, stocky, bald, and slur my words when I talk. But I’ve done well for myself with these students because they see me as someone who cares about them and wants them to do well.

Sometimes, all it takes is for just one person to believe in you and you can do anything — you can do the impossible. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been that one person for any of my students, but I strive to be.