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San Diego Unified’s summer school will be bigger than ever

Sisters Priscilla and Kayla Villasenor look at the "Explore Your Brain" display last year at the Fleet Science Center.
Sisters Priscilla and Kayla Villasenor visit the Fleet Science Center’s “Explore Your Brain” exhibit in San Diego’s Balboa Park last year. The Fleet Science Center is one of at least 65 nonprofits offering free summer day camps for San Diego Unified students through the school district’s “Level Up SD” summer learning program.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

After COVID-19 school closures, at least 25,000 students — 12 times more than usual — will attend summer classes.

For the first time in decades, every San Diego Unified School District student will have the chance to go to summer school and summer day camp for free.

Flush with $450 million of federal COVID-19 relief dollars and tens of millions more in state COVID dollars, San Diego Unified is expanding its summer school options and opening them to all students this year.

At least 25,000 children — more than a quarter of the district’s students — have signed up for the academic summer program since enrollment opened earlier this month. In a normal year, about 2,000 students participate in the district’s summer school.

Summer school will begin Monday, June 21.

In addition to academic summer school, the district is offering day camps and other enrichment programs for all interested students — also for free — by partnering with dozens of local nonprofit organizations. While many nonprofits offer scholarships for low-income families, summer camp had been accessible mostly to families who can afford it.

This year students will get the chance to learn surfing, ballet, circus arts, drum line, guitar, theater and how to be a barista. They’ll get to go to wildlife camp, ocean camp, science camp or art camp.

The district is betting on summer school as one of its largest efforts to help students recover from more than a year of the pandemic, school closures and distance learning, which disrupted many students’ academic progress and harmed many students’ mental health.

Beyond mitigating learning loss, the programs are meant to give kids a chance to have fun after the pandemic, district leaders said.

San Diego Unified can afford to expand its summer learning to all students because of COVID relief funds, district leaders said. Officials said this won’t be the last time the district offers such a varied and fun-oriented summer learning program.

“This, unfortunately, was made possible because of a pandemic, but we should’ve been doing this for the last 40 years,” said San Diego Unified board President Richard Barrera. “I guarantee that this will not be the only summer that we do this in this district.”

The district has enough COVID relief money to offer the expanded summer program for at least the next two years, Barrera said, since federal COVID relief funds don’t have to be used up until 2023. He added that the district should be partnering with nonprofits to offer after-school programs throughout the school year, not just during the summer.

“We know that this should not just be a summer program,” Barrera said. “We are ready to make that investment as a school district.”

This year’s summer learning program will cost about $31 million — which will be paid for entirely with learning-loss funds the district received from the state. For now, the district will use federal COVID money for other purposes.

The academic program will consist of four hours and 20 minutes of instruction five mornings a week in person, though an online option will be available for students who wish to stay home, district officials said.

Typically the district only offers summer school to high school students who flunked a class or need more credits and to students with disabilities, for whom the district is required by law to provide an extended school year if needed.

The enrichment programs and summer camps will generally happen in the afternoons so students can participate both in the academic and enrichment programs, but schedules will differ for each enrichment program.

Enrollment for the summer camps and enrichment activities opened May 26 with at least 10,000 spots available, but more will open as more grants are given to the nonprofit groups providing the activities.

So far, the San Diego Foundation has awarded $5 million in district grants to 65 nonprofits. An additional $10 million has yet to be distributed.

The district board has promised that every student who wants to take part in summer learning, whether academic or enrichment, will get the opportunity.

Often summer school is thought of as punitive, remedial, mandatory, only for a few students and purely about academics, said Aaron Philip Dworkin, chief executive of the National Summer Learning Association.

But proper summer learning is supposed to be the opposite of all that, he said, blending academics with fun enrichment activities offered by community organizations.

“The idea is to make it so exciting that it’s voluntary and everyone wants to come,” Dworkin said.

San Diego Unified officials said they don’t expect summer school staffing to be a problem because many teachers have said they are eager to help students recover this summer. As of this week, enough teachers had signed up to fully staff summer school, officials said.

To encourage staff to work this summer, the school board agreed May 25 to pay summer school teachers a 2 percent one-time bonus, on top of the normal rates they will be paid for working summer school.

District officials said they are still working out whether any summer enrichment programs will offer transportation for students who need it.

Free lunch will be provided to all students participating in the morning academic program.

Families can sign up for a summer enrichment program or the academic summer program at levelupsandiego.org.


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