When 11-year-old Stefani Oliver starts back to school next month in Memphis, she’ll know a lot of new things — like some martial arts moves from ancient China and how to make glittery slime for a science project.
But the rising sixth-grader likely would have missed those experiences if she hadn’t attended Shelby County Schools’ first-ever summer learning academy, a free six-week program aimed at keeping the district’s youngest minds active and engaged.
“Having her here made me feel good as a parent,” said Talia Oliver, Stefani’s mom, about the academy hosted at Alcy Elementary School. “This program kept the learning going for them.”
Stefani was among about 6,300 students who participated in the K-5 academy at one of 26 schools across Memphis. While attendance went up and down, the reach exceeded well beyond the 5,500 students initially targeted when Superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced the initiative in March.
The academy wrapped up last week with students taking assessments to gauge their summertime growth in math and reading. Those students will be tracked in the upcoming school year to see if the experience makes a difference academically.
Hopson, who has expressed openness to switching to year-round school, said the data will be useful to determine if a calendar change makes sense. “Clearly there’s a huge need here. The research shows the summer learning loss is real,” he said during a radio broadcast in May.
Teachers who led the academies said working with smaller groups of students helped create a learning environment that was positive, fun and productive.
“I think they’ll see a growth in test scores,” predicts Tresa Taylor, a fourth-grade teacher at Germanshire Elementary School.
Within Shelby County Schools, where 60 percent of children live in poverty, parents often don’t reinforce schooling during the summer — “not for lack of trying,” Taylor said, “but because parents don’t know what to do in the summer.”
The resulting summer learning loss contributes to a widening achievement gap with their more affluent peers, who have greater access to enriching summer activities that range from library time to traveling to interesting places.
The learning academies were designed to reinforce old lessons, as well as teach new ones — and without the pressure of teaching to state-mandated tests. The days included weekly field trips, time for reading, and healthy meals.
“It’s supposed to review and enrich our children to prepare for the next grade in addition to having fun,” said Latisha Brown, an assistant principal at Germanshire, who coordinated the academy at Alcy.
The initiative was funded mostly from federal grants designated to support students from low-income families; the rest came from Shelby County Schools.
Celebrating the end of the academy last week with her daughter, Oliver offered only one critique: she thinks the program should be expanded to more grades.
“Students are falling behind in middle school too,” she said, “and it would be great to prepare for high school.”
Chalkbeat reporter Helen Carefoot contributed to this report.