The evolution of summer school in Janesville

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Nick Crow
August 2, 2015

JANESVILLE — Not too long ago, people might have pictured summer school as students frantically trying to catch up to their classmates.

That's no longer the case in the Janesville School District, said summer school Director Paul Stengel.

“Summer school really was viewed as remediation,” Stengel said. “It was viewed as punishment for the kids. They didn't get their work completed in the school year, so now we're going to make them come into summer school and sit down and basically put in seat time and do worksheets, and that was the overall perception.

"Teachers didn't want to teach it, the kids didn't want to be there, and it really was a struggle. It really wasn't what we wanted to be happening for our district or our students," Stengel said.

In the last several years, the mindset of summer school has shifted toward offering enrichment programs for students.

Stengel took over the summer school program last summer from longtime district employee Steve Huth, who retired. Huth is now a member of the Janesville School Board.

“Some of the things that we've done, we're really now viewing it as an opportunity for the staff and for the students,” Stengel said. “It's really an opportunity for teachers to try some new and innovative practices and using innovative curriculum that can increase the rigor and relevance of the curriculum with the kids.”

Stengel said some examples of programs that have been enhanced include robotics, computer coding, engineering design processes, outdoor education, math and reading.

“The kids really see it as an opportunity for themselves to learn some new and exciting things in the summer,” Stengel said.

The summer school program earns the district more than $5,000 in revenue for each student enrolled, according to Keith Pennington, chief financial officer for the district.

“The rule is, theoretically, you're not supposed to bring in more than you spend on the child,” Pennington said.

Summer school does not increase the school district's overall revenue because the income from it counts against the district's revenue cap. The exception is summer school revenue from students who live outside the district.

For each summer school student, the district receives 40 percent of the state aid it would get for a full-time student, Pennington said. Last year, the district received about $761,000 in state funding from the summer school program, he said.

“In the end, the No. 1 goal is for student achievement and to avoid the summer slide,” Pennington said.

Enrollment for the district's summer program has steadily risen each year, Stengel said. The summer program had an enrollment of 2,760 in 2011. This year it was up to 3,407 students. Out-of-district student enrollment jumped to 150 students last year but dropped this year after the district raised fees for those students from $40 to $150. The rise in out-of-district students was because of the relatively low cost of the swim program in Janesville, Stengel said.

“It's looked at in a couple different ways,” Stengel said. “We have students who attend our parochial schools in Janesville, whose parents live in Janesville and pay taxpayer money. They aren't considered out-of-district at all, so they don't pay any extra.

"Then you have kids whose parents live in the Milton School District, and their taxes go to that district. They are considered out-of-district students.”

Students within the district don't pay for summer classes unless the course requires outside use, such as greens fees for golf, visits to the Ice Age Trail or participation in the summer musical.

Lincoln Elementary School teacher Angela Smalley said she believes as a teacher and a parent that summer school has benefited her sons.

“School can be so monotonous,” she said. “Summer school is a way to experience it in a fun way. Learning can be fun. It's a good thing for the kids. They buy into it more. They are able to have more fun because kids aren't worried about test taking. They are absolutely learning while having fun at the same time.”

Stengel said summer school now focuses on enrichment at the elementary and middle school levels.

At the high school level, making up credits for failed classes is still a big priority.

“Kids at elementary and middle levels really can take whatever they want,” Stengel said. “They attend any school they would like, but we've tried to create neighborhood schools where teachers are from that school.”

“The nice thing about that is the staff knows where the weaknesses of the kids lie, so they can work on specific reading or math skills in the summer time that they missed during the school year,” he said.

Stengel said providing enrichment courses for younger students cuts down on behavioral issues because the kids spend the day engaged in their lessons.

“If the kids are engaged and are enjoying what they're doing, the behavior issues aren't going to be there, and they're going to have a more positive outlook on school,” he said.

The district is working on more enrichment in high school, while also allowing for credit recovery.

“A lot of high school courses were remediation,” Stengel said. “Get the kids in because they didn't pass a class. It was an opportunity for them to make up credit over the summer. What we really want to do is start offering more enrichment-type courses to those kids so they have the opportunity to learn.”

The district also will begin using a reading assessment before school ends in June and then at the end of summer. This will ensure that students are making progress, he said.

For parents, families are responsible for getting their children to and from summer school. Once there, students receive free breakfast, lunch and childcare, which also are important, Stengel said.

“My predecessor said it's the cheapest babysitting you can have,” Stengel said. “I've talked to several parents and asked them specifically, 'How does your child like the classes?' and they said they love it and that they can't wait to go to summer school.

"That used to be unheard of. I mean it was for me growing up.”

“If it was up to parents, they'd be here all day,” he said.

Previously, about half the schools in Janesville offered a summer program. Now, every school in the district with the exception of Rock University High School offers summer classes. The summer program runs until July for both elementary and middle school. There is also a smaller August academy offered for those students. The high school section is offered in two parts. One is offered immediately after the school year ends, and another begins after a three-week break.

One issue the district has encountered at the high school level is students signing up for summer credit recovery courses only to drop the class once they found out they passed during the regular school year.

“Next year, there will be a week off between the end of school year and summer school for high school students so that counselors can get in and take a look to verify which classes students need,” Stengel said.

Dana Simmons, head summer school teacher at Lincoln, said the summer school program helps reinforce skills taught during the regular school year.

“The great thing about summer school is that we know where the kids are, and we can extend our school year and put a different spin on what they learn,” Simmons said. “The kids love it, and we know a majority of the kids, so we're familiar with exactly with where they are so we can just jump right in.”

Simmons said the program has grown at Lincoln from about 90 students last year to about 120 this year.

Stengel said that for teachers, summer school allows them to be more experimental, which helps their teaching styles.

“Teaching in the summer is a complete different feel and vibe to it,” Stengel said. “It's a lot more relaxed because you don't have the pressure of the high stakes testing that you do during the regular school year. Teachers can try some of those new practices almost in like a sand box type environment, and they can find out if it's successful and carry it over into the regular school year. We're finding that a lot of them are doing that.”

“Teachers love being around kids, they love working with kids,” he said. “It's really just a complete different feel in the summer.”

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