Memphis summer learning will be online and smaller than usual

Students sitting around a school cafeteria table raise their hands when their principal asks a question
In this file photo from 2017, then-principal Debra Martin asks Alton Elementary students who will be attending the district’s summer learning academy. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Memphis students who did not earn passing grades before buildings closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic will have the opportunity to advance to the next grade, through online summer school that also will provide them laptops and hotspots for internet access. 

In addition, kindergarten and first-grade students will participate in Shelby County Schools’ summer learning academy to focus on reading.

Research shows that many students do not retain all they learned from spring to fall. Students from low-income families are especially susceptible to this phenomenon, known as summer slide, because they are less likely to attend costly summer camps. With wide variation in instruction while campuses were closed this spring, district leaders are especially eager to provide catch-up help for students who lost out on learning and may be struggling.

Patrice Thomas, chief of staff for Shelby County Schools (Shelby County Schools)

“We’ve always had a summer learning loss. What COVID has done is basically exacerbate that,” said Patrice Thomas, the district’s chief of staff. “The supports are still the same, but we need to be able to provide quality instruction during times they would normally be at school.” 

Shelby County Schools closed buildings March 13, meaning that students spent one-third of the school year away from the traditional classroom. State officials count all of that time as learning loss even though some schools offered remote learning options. But some teachers say their students actually lost less learning time, because normally in spring they spend many hours preparing for standardized testing. 

Summertime gives districts across the nation their first opportunity to begin addressing learning loss from the pandemic. Some districts are holding summer school online or in small in-person classes, but not all are holding back students if they don’t improve their grades. Baltimore, for example, is promoting all students to the next grade, regardless of their achievement.

Memphis’ summer online classes for credit will include distribution of laptops to students needing them. The district is seeking funding to ultimately provide every student with a laptop or tablet, and internet access. The district has been tapping into its inventory of about 35,000 laptops, so that students can learn from home. Last month, the district distributed laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to high school students wanting to start online lessons to improve their grades and graduate

District officials plan to notify parents this week if their children need to participate in the summer online program. Online classes are scheduled for June 8 through July 16.

Summer learning for younger students is especially important because starting in 2021-22, second-grade students who do not meet eight of 12 reading benchmarks will be sent to summer school or be held back. The policy is modeled after a Florida law enacted in the early 2000s that requires schools to retain third-grade students who do not pass a reading test. 

The summer learning academy started in 2017 for all students under then-Superintendent Dorsey Hopson as a way to reinforce lessons learned during the school year and test year-round schooling. 

This year, the district plans to limit the summer learning academy to reading lessons for kindergarten and first grade students. The district had hoped to expand the academy to all elementary school students and eighth-grade students transitioning to high school, but the county commission declined the district’s request to fund it.

Update, May 20, 2020: Shelby County Schools has now decided against in-person instruction for the summer learning academy. A previous version of this story said district officials were still considering it.

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