Imagine what summer school could be. Council Bluffs did.
The exact origins remain a mystery, but the concept of “It takes a village” is widely believed to have roots in an African proverb. That’s where children are considered a special gift to society and tending to their well-being a shared privilege and communal responsibility. What then is the connection between the African proverb and the Council Bluffs Community School District (CBCSD)? Plenty, especially if you focus on summer school programming and community partnerships.
This is a venture in which students – elementary through high school – clamor to get in. All slots are filled – and there’s a waiting list.
Historically for elementary students, CBCSD conducted a Monday through Thursday, half-day program for five weeks during the summer. Middle school grades had four weeks of summer programming and high school students were offered some opportunity for credit recovery.
“Two things were happening,” said Sandra Day, program director for 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) grant for this school district of 9,000 students.
“The district wasn’t getting a lot of students, and I wasn’t really serving the students I was supposed to be serving,” she said. “The majority of students who signed up were not Title I students, which the grant was designed to support after school.”
Essentially, two different programs were set up to run opposite each other and were competing for students.
Like sunrise over the African Serengeti, it dawned on Day that perhaps resources could be combined. Why roam the vast plains of summer programming as separate entities struggling for survival when resources could be pooled, more students could be served over a longer period of time in the summer – an academic season equivalent to drought – when students often significantly backslide in both numeracy and literacy?
Enter Corey Vorthmann, teaching and learning assistant superintendent, Tim Hamilton, executive director of student and family services, and Carly Gates, assistant director for summer programs and middle school instructional coach. Together with Day they explored the possibility of pooling resources to extend the capacity and duration of summer programs. An a-ha moment. A village is born.
And that changed everything. By utilizing 21st CCLC funding, Iowa West Foundation grants, and partnering with the school district to extend existing programming, 500 students in grades 1-5 currently attend all-day summer classes at two elementary schools, five days a week, from June 19 through Aug. 11.
Students enjoy a great balance between morning academics and afternoon enrichment experiences. Mornings are focused on literacy in which core standards are emphasized. Afternoons focus on an array of electives (about 40 from which to choose) in categories like Arts for All, Healthy Life, Helping Hands, STEM, and Outdoor Adventures, and may be more loosely based on a variety of standards within different subjects. Fridays are a combination of learning trips and in-house electives.
For the elementary grades, the district is working with Deborah Reed with the Iowa Reading Research Center to administer diagnostic tests that pinpoint the exact areas where students need support. Teachers are doing the basic remedial work, and grade-level interventionists come in and work with two to three students at a time for more intensive assistance.
“This year we are focusing on putting in a pre- and post-assessment piece, known as Rapid Assessment,” Gates said. “Before the end of the school year we pretested all of those students who qualified for summer programming, knowing that not all could or would enroll, which then gave us a strong control group. At the beginning of the school year we will test the whole group again. It’s the first year of such a solid piece that will show how much these kids grew, those who attended versus those who didn’t.”
With a coordinated plan, middle schoolers now experience two, all-day three-week sessions. Where once only half the seats were filled, now 180 seat sessions are full, with a waiting list. Middle school curriculum is focused on engagement. Students are taken out into the community to show them different opportunities, and they see that learning is everywhere.
“At the middle school level, we’re focused on engagement, so we did detailed surveys,” Day said. “We asked the students questions about their attitudes toward math, reading, and learning. We saw an increase in students understanding the connections in learning. They gained background knowledge that they bring into the new school year which makes them feel confident and more positive about their learning in general.”
High schoolers have a variety of all-day options from June 12 through July 22, including credit recovery classes, an expanded afternoon model of 21st CCLC career and trade exploration and awareness. They also have a chance to earn elective credit for participating in career exploration.
In addition, three 21st CCLC Career Institutes are operating at area college campuses including University of Nebraska Omaha, Iowa Western Community College, and Creighton University/Clarkson Medical Center. The model consists of learning on campus in the morning and exploring careers face-to-face in the afternoon. Incoming freshmen can participate and start high school with as much as 1.5 elective credits.
And that’s just for openers. As is the wont of a thriving program, benefits multiply and the village expands. Enter the power of strong, meaningful school/community partnerships.
“Community partners are positive, communicative, and eager to work with us,” Day said. “They know it’s a great opportunity for kids. They want to help, especially when it is something as big as an entire K-12 district providing amazing opportunities for kids all summer long. When we reach out, people are jumping aboard. They’re happy to help and are so positive about it.
“In the (Council Bluffs-Omaha) metro area, partners are so dedicated to making certain students have a full and rounded experience in education. They are jumping at the chance. Partners like HyVee and the Henry Doorly Zoo are constantly doing things for the program. The community partnerships have effectively created a summer safety net for students who are the most in need in our community.”
With community partnerships like Midlands Humane Society aboard, elementary students were able to participate in the Camp Pawsome elective, which involved three days of in-class activity including studying about the work Midlands does for the community, how Midlands helps keep animals and people safe, why it’s important, and what would happen if Midlands didn’t exist. Students then created books to read to the sheltered animals and blankets to share.
Grades 6-8 middle school students report that the experience at the Henry Doorly zoo was a good mix between classroom work and exploratory, investigative work. In the morning they were in the classroom in their seats creating a plant with a biodegradable cup and soil and learning how to explain what plants need. From there they were easily able to go out into the zoo environment, into the gardens and explore the different types of plants and make comparisons.
“Education partners like the Henry Doorly Zoo, Fontenelle Nature Association, Lauritzen Gardens, and Hitchcock Nature Center are places we often send our students on field trips,” Gates said. “They are the type of people we want to get involved in summer programming. It brings in that engagement piece. They are able to provide us so much more than on a typical field trip. They put a plethora of options on the table, and we tell them okay, this is what we are looking for, what can you do in this area? They are flexible, help set up meetings, provide space, guest speakers, behind-the-scenes opportunities and find it easy to connect to the standards and know what kids need in terms of instruction.”
At the high school level, focus groups revealed that students desired in-depth career exploration for the out-of-school activities. So, working with partner Iowa Western Community College, week-long summer career institute sessions were created, including intensive study of 911 responders and first responders, television and radio industries, mechanical engineering and biomedical science. Students solved problems in the classroom in the morning based on the curriculum the professors provided and then broke for lunch on campus to experience being on a college campus. In the afternoon, students participated in tours and excursions to related businesses they had studied.
“Our thinking was teach the science in the morning and teach the interpersonal in the afternoon,” Day said. “Fifty-five kids participated. It was so popular, everybody who was not a returning senior said they wanted to do it again, and wanted to know if there was any way to receive elective credit because they had worked so hard! They also gave us input into what other areas they would want to study. We started with one week and now we have three. Our goal is to expand that part of the program.”
In June, students who had fallen behind in their coursework had an intensive three-week credit recovery program in the morning and career and trade visits in the afternoon. The district aligned with 13 brand-new partners and looked at six service areas in Career and Technical Education. The majority of the students were sophomores who had already missed an elective credit. In some cases the summer program got the students right back on track. The program went from five to 15 students, thanks to the suggestion of a lead teacher to open the program up to incoming ninth graders and offer the program in July. Seniors not destined to graduate did so thanks to the summer program.
“I was so moved by what the students learned,” said Day, referring to student-presented Power Points. “There’s higher order thinking, authentic learning going on. This is stuff you can’t teach from a textbook.”
Student feedback regarding career exploration included:
“Sometimes you don’t make a lot of money in a non-profit. But that is OK because you get to work in a job that helps people and it is one you really love. Sometimes that is more important than money.”
“I learned that it takes a lot of patience to be a welder. And the most important thing for me (because I like art), I saw how cool it was that you start with nothing – just an idea. You create beauty with your mind and you bring it to life.”
“It may not be a place where I see myself, but I did learn I want to go someplace where it’s really fun, and those people really enjoyed working together, so I learned it’s important to like where you go.”
And summer programming not only impacts grades positively, it also affects attendance and discipline positively.
“And we know it affects the reduction in youth crime during the after school hours,” Day said. “Nationally, FBI statistics show a 30 percent drop in youth crime during the after-school hours. In Council Bluffs, thanks to the Council Bluffs police department, we are tracking it by the hour for the fourth year. From 2 to 3 p.m. and 4 to 5 p.m., our youth crime and youth arrests have gone down 20 percent. Not only good academic gains, but social issues benefit as well.”
The school district works diligently to make sure community partners understand the value of their involvement and that they are truly a partner, not just a piece in helping educate the students. In addition to hosting community partner meetings, the district recognizes partners at an end-of-the-program showcase at the zoo where students also extend personal thanks to the businesses.
So what about school districts that wish to forge ahead with partnership ideas but don’t know where to begin?
“I would say reach out, whether it’s to us to see how it works or to just start talking to your community,” Gates said. “You don’t know what anyone can offer you until you start asking them. I think you’d be really surprised at what they can offer. You can get overwhelmed with the idea of funding in general, so start somewhere, with one grade level or just elementary or just middle or high school.”
“I would invite anybody to come and see what we are doing here,” Day said. “We are more than happy to reach out electronically or over the phone if someone has questions. Listening to the partners and getting that advisory group together is so powerful and has given us so much good feedback from all the stakeholders, from students to everybody that teaches for us, to parents. Listening to what your student and school community wants is very important.”
In this expanding village, you won’t find anyone standing on the north side of a tree with moss growing underfoot either. Lush with ideas about growing the future, the district ponders how to make the program even better. Can they increase from 20 to 30 partners next year? Can they look at every single elective and assign a partner for each of them?
“There aren’t limits until you say what is going to be limiting,” Gates said. “There has never been a ‘well, we can’t do that.’ It’s not in our vocabulary. It’s more, ‘how can we do that? How can we make that happen?’ So much credit goes to Cory Vorthman and our administration who asks us ‘Have you thought about this, what if we do that?’ It’s about getting better and making sure the data is showing we are doing what’s best for kids. We start with the sky is the limit.”
“It’s our hope that the Rapid Assessment data comes back and shows this is a rock star recipe for other districts so that they can learn from something we tried, that worked,” Day said. “It starts with dreaming, ‘what could we do?’ There are no bad ideas here.”
Council Bluffs Community School District has decided it takes a village, and in this one, it’s easy to imagine successful students living there, where the sky is indeed the limit.
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