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Beat the Summer Achievement Loss with a Summer Science Academy: Portland, Maine

Erica Beck Spencer, FOSS Curriculum Specialist, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 21, 2016 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: Raised garden beds in Reiche's outdoor class room. In the summer of 2016, students made strawberry rhubarb pie with rhubarb from the garden—a delicious extension of the FOSS Plants and Animals Module.

Imagine having time to teach all of a FOSS module without rushing. Imagine also having time to create authentic interdisciplinary extensions, being able to extend classroom experiences by taking curriculum-related field trips, centering your literacy program on the science content, and even doing fun crafty projects connected to science. During the school year, you ask? Keep dreaming! There are very few teachers across this country who would be able to find the time to do all of this with all of their other responsibilities. But three years ago, Portland, Maine, wanted to beat the summer achievement loss by engaging children in something they knew the students would love—science! They chose FOSS as the center of their curriculum for the Summer Science Academy (SSA), which served several low-income schools in the city.

Here's how Portland, the most diverse city in the state of Maine, was able to make this happen for so many deserving incoming first–fourth graders. Read on to discover if they were able to reach their goal to keep students from sliding backwards academically during the summer, what lessons they learned from y ear to y ear, the specifics of the program, and to explore the day-to-day operations of the SSA.

The John T. Gorman Foundation

The John T. Gorman Foundation is interested in advancing ideas and opportunities that improve the lives of disadvantaged people in Maine. In 2013, the Foundation put out a request for proposals that would address the issue of summer learning loss in reading. The Foundation ultimately supported Portland, Maine, and three other districts across the state serving predominantly low-income or disadvantaged students to create initiatives that would reduce the summer achievement loss typical of low-income students.

The grant covered the cost of paying teachers and assistants who would lead the program with students, the adoption of curriculum materials, as well as the funds to create an environment and develop incentives to encourage children to come each week. The Foundation also offered technical assistance to support program development and implementation. Lunch and breakfast were provided free to students, and students were able to ride school buses to and from the SSA each day.

The fundamentals of the program

When the program was first being planned in 2013, Portland had not adopted the FOSS curriculum and, for that reason, the SSA was able to use the FOSS modules of their choosing. In the first year of the program, the team thought the FOSS Air and Weather Module, Third Edition, a module with a lot of outdoor activities, would be an excellent place to begin, with exciting, active learning experiences for all students in grades 1–4. The committee searched the list of recommended nonfiction and fiction books on FOSSweb to supplement the module. They purchased books for students as rewards for attendance. The books aligned to the air and weather theme and matched the students' reading levels.

The Foundation presented research from the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) to the planning committee that suggested that 80–100 hours of summer programming is the sweet spot for preventing academic backslide during the summer months. In order to reach this target, students would attend camp for four hours daily for five weeks. Other strategies that the NSLA recommends for summer success include:

  • a camp-like feel;
  • parental involvement;
  • high-quality teachers; and
  • regular attendance.

Each year, several schools in the district hosted camps. Each school had between two and six classrooms depending on the need and the number of children they were able to recruit.

A typical day at SSA begins with breakfast at 8:00 a.m., followed by participating in camp stories and songs as part of morning meeting. Some of the songs were created by the children or teachers and connected to the curriculum (see side bar). Students engaged in guided reading groups and independent reading time. Students also played math games and, of course, there was time for science investigations. The day ended with a shared lunch. School buses picked students up and brought them home if a guardian wasn't able to pick them up. The goal was to maintain the camp-like atmosphere to keep students coming back each day. Unlike school, attendance was not mandatory, but just like during the school year, attendance was essential to the goals of the program. So how did they keep the children coming back? They kept it fun and rewarded attendance weekly. Perfect attendance during the first year earned the students a book each week. During the subsequent years, they also provided incentives connected to the science theme such as flying disks, parachute people, foam airplanes, bubbles, and rubber slingshot frogs. Students loved them.

During the three years of the grant, the returning SSA staff took more responsibility for designing the summer program at their school. The educators involved in teaching the program got better and better at tweaking the parts of the program to keep them coming back. By year three, the FOSS Air and Weather Module was used again at some schools. Field experiences were an essential part of the program that kept students engaged in the learning and looking forward to coming. Examples of the field experiences were:

  • A visit from local meteorologists Craig Miller and Todd Gutner from a local TV channel;
  • A field trip to the East End playground and beach;
  • A ride to the Portland International Airport to view planes taking off and landing;
  • Skye Toys shared kite-flying experiences and assisted participants in making kites a tad fancier than the FOSS kites they had already made;
  • Eli's Soda, a local company, provided a donation of root beer for students to make root beer floats—cloud floats;
  • A trip to the Portland Museum of Art to see weather in art; and
  • Bus trips to Fort Williams to fly kites.

One group of students was inspired to film their own weather report after meeting one of the local meteorologists. While all of these experiences were fun, one educator involved with the program stated, "the biggest excitement came from the [FOSS] experiments students worked on: balloon rockets, parachute making, water pressure tests, bubbles and air movement, and flying a kite. Here, students learned quickly to cooperate with their classmates and solve problems."

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Reiche School & Community Center is an open-concept school building in the heart of the West End of Portland, Maine.

Parents were invited to some of the special events listed above as well as to the culminating events such as one school's weather-themed literacy lunch. Guests were treated to hot dogs and weather-related desserts such as "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" cupcakes, cloud Jell-O, rainbow fruit kabobs, kite crispies, watermelon suns and umbrellas, and cloud punch. Students prepared all of the treats. At another school, families, staff, and students gathered to watch videos and show a slide show of the students' learning in action, followed by each class's performance of original songs about weather and air.

PD for teachers

During the first two summers teachers engaged in a full-day module-specific training that incorporated several of the features of our programming including science notebooks, science-centered language development, and taking FOSS outdoors.

Were they successful?

By the end of year three at Harrison Lyseth Elementary School, one of the participating schools, 100% of the students attending the academy maintained or increased their reading levels. By the end of the program at Howard C. Reiche Community School, 97% of students had maintained or increased reading levels. At all schools, they were successful at achieving their carefully sought after balance— teachers were both serious about improving students' academic skills and also cared deeply about maintaining the summer camp feel. The SSA was able to provide a well-rounded learning experience that stemmed the tide of summer learning loss.

And on they go!

When the grant period concluded, Portland Public Schools committed to sustaining the program at both Harrison Lyseth Elementary School and Howard C. Reiche Community School for the summer of 2016. They once again used FOSS as the basis for their programming to provide the context for their literacy instruction for their SSA. Reiche used the FOSS Plants and Animals Module; Lyseth plans to use the FOSS Air and Weather Module again. The schools invited up to 100 students in grades 1–4. It seems the schools have found the right balance of creating a camp-like feel while also trying to push academics ahead. The test scores and attendance attest that they were successful.

As previously noted, the exciting summer work done in Maine was inspired by the National Summer Learning Association, the only national nonprofit focused on narrowing the achievement gap by providing all youth access to high-quality summer and after school experiences. Their mission, as noted on their website, is three-fold:

  1. To expand access to those who need it the most and collaborate with other organizations to improve summer and afterschool offerings;
  2. To build awareness of the need to keep all kids learning, safe and healthy; and
  3. To strengthen policy by bringing leaders across the country together to reach more equitable summer solutions for excellence in education.

If you are considering starting a summer learning program we advise you to reach out to the NSLA (link below). No matter what the season, during the school year or during the summer, getting kids excited about learning has the potential to positively affect the lives of all children.

To learn more about NSLA "Smarter Summers, Brighter Futures," visit their website, summerlearning.org.