Just a few months ago, Elijah Hall did not imagine developing a liking for poetry. He’s just never been a huge fan, he said.
But after studying it at the Indy Summer Learning Labs, Elijah, 15, said he’s learned to enjoy the rhythm of a work called “The Crossover.” He said he can relate to the main character, who loves basketball just like he does. He’s glad his teachers picked it.
It’s a big change from the uncertainty he felt when he first learned he’d be attending the program. Some people gave him an inaccurate picture of what it would be like, making him think of more long days in classrooms.
“I thought it was gonna be boring because [I thought] it was summer school,” he said. “I had no idea it would be nearly this fun.”
Elijah is one of more than 5,000 students participating in Summer Learning Labs, which are in their second year in Indianapolis and serve incoming first through ninth graders. Amid the pandemic’s major disruptions, the program has tried to distinguish itself from summer remedial fare. It relies on curriculum training for teachers, offering frequent chances for one-on-one classroom support, and balancing rigorous studies with recreation and the chance for students to create stronger bonds with educators and each other.
Some early test score data from the program shows promise in addressing learning loss.
In total, there are more than 40 locations for the Summer Learning Labs — an initiative run by the United Way of Central Indiana and the Mind Trust — including churches and community centers as well as schools.
Children can attend the program for free or at a relatively low cost, an incentive which can help parents looking for a place for their children while they are working during the summer.
The teachers serving in the program come from the host locations or a separate group of instructors. There are 95 licensed teachers hired to teach at locations that were not hosted at schools, like community centers and churches. Indy Summer Learning Labs also hired a pool of aides to help with small group instruction; many of them are college students studying to become teachers.
The program was originally funded through a $11.1 million Student Learning Recovery state grant from the Indiana Department of Education, along with a $500,000 joint investment from United Way of Central Indiana and the Mind Trust. This year, the state awarded an additional $4.1 million to the program, which is also relying on leftover state funding the program didn’t use last year. Funding for the program next year is uncertain.
‘Bring school to the community’
More than 1,600 of the students in the program this summer are from Indianapolis Public Schools. The number of program sites hosted by IPS has risen from two last year to seven.
The program is set up in part to ensure that there are flexible options for students with respect to which locations they can attend, said Shannon Williams, the executive director of the Mind Trust.
“Oftentimes summer programs are located at one specific site. Or you have to attend the school in order to participate in the Summer Program,” Williams said. “Well, we said, those are great, but let’s bring school to the community.”
To a certain extent, Learning Labs can look like a regular school day. Inside, students are busy with an array of classes. But unlike some summer academic offerings, students take on challenging coursework that program leaders say is made possible through support from staff.
“We knew that children do really well, when they’re challenged with rigorous academics,” said Williams, referencing the planning process before the program started. “You know, a lot of folks believe that when children are behind you should not teach them at grade level, but we wanted to really challenge that thinking.”
At the same time, the students aren’t simply handed tough assignments to handle on their own. In fact, in many situations, the program’s instructors will have someone in the classroom — often an aide — who can pull students aside for one-on-one time to help with whatever they are struggling with.
Some students don’t get that kind of individualized attention during the school year, said Destinee’ Rule, a teacher in the Learning Labs program.
“We have these five precious weeks with students and we need to invest in the time that we have,” said Rule, referring to the length of the program.
Students aren’t the only ones in the program working on their knowledge and skills. Educators who work in Learning Labs get curriculum training from the Lavinia Group, a professional development and coaching firm. In total, there are more than 300 instructors receiving curriculum training, said Jackie Taslim, chief program officer of the Lavinia Group. The content focuses on English and math.
“The professional development plays a really key role,” Taslim said. “Each week when we’re meeting with teachers, we look at student work, we look at the data, we really understand where students are.”
Yet core coursework isn’t the only thing staff cares about. Instructors want to focus on the curriculum, but also serve as mentors.
“There’s just a different vibe in the summer,” said Dani Neal, project director for the Indy Summer Learning Labs. “I think with summer learning, it’s more relaxed, more opportunity for teachers to really engage with students.”
Most of the academic material is covered in the mornings, leaving the afternoon open for activities like dance classes and movie showings.
The students are giving a second life to classrooms that are typically used for algebra and history classes during the school year. In one room, a dozen students begin moving to the rhythm their dance instructor counts off. In the next, other students are in a creative writing workshop developing their fictional characters.
What the students leave with
There are indications that students who attended Learning Labs last summer experienced an academic benefit.
Last year, students took tests before and after completing the program to measure their progress — a practice that will continue this summer. The share of students achieving “proficient” or “basic” scores in English/language arts (the two highest scoring levels on the test) grew from 26% before the program to 46% afterwards, with most of that growth occurring in the top-tier proficient category. In math, the share of students achieving those two top scoring categories grew from 21% to 47%, with most of that growth again in the proficient category.
But as with other programs not strictly focused on academics, the benefits for many students extend beyond test results. Rule said students who attend Learning Labs the summer before they enter high school gain the extra benefit of getting to know people who will be familiar faces in the fall.
Chastity McCann, 14, is one of those students. She will be in her first year of high school this fall and says the program is making her transition to high school easier. It’s also given her a way to get out of the house and see her friends nearly every day during the summer.
This is McCann’s second year with the program and she said she had been anticipating coming back.
“I feel safe here. I really like how they have a heart,” she said about the staff at BELIEVE Circle City High School, which she will attend in the fall and where she’s participating in Learning Labs.
Meanwhile, Zach Montgomery, a student at the high school who’s also in Learning Labs, is dribbling a basketball among dozens of other students on the court. They’re wrapping up a day of classes as students wait for the buses that will take them home; many will arrive just as their parents get home from work and are ready to hear about their child’s day.
Montgomery casually hits a three-pointer and gets a few high-fives. He said his favorite part of the learning labs is meeting new people.
“Once I came and got the gist of it, I really started to enjoy it,” he said.
Helen Rummel is a summer reporting intern covering education in the Indianapolis area. Contact Helen at firstname.lastname@example.org.