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Summer school enrollment surges across Tucson

Summer school enrollment surges across Tucson

When children cross the rainbow arch on the front steps of Johnson Primary, they know what to expect.

They know they’ll eat breakfast, see friends, have a caring teacher, and they will learn, says Principal Rose Cota.

“We want them not only to learn, but they need to feel loved,” she says. “They need to be safe. They need to be respected and happy.”

The preK-3 Tucson Unified school had 82 children enroll in summer programs this year compared to 30 in a typical year.

In fact, schools across the metro Tucson area have had a rise in summer school enrollment this year. In Tucson’s nine major school districts there are about 23,500 students in summer school, which is more than three times the enrollment in a typical summer.

The reasons for the increase in summer school attendance include an expansion of free summer programs, kids making up for poor grades during remote learning and parents who want their children to reconnect with peers and their school, educators say.

Districts here are investing more than $13.2 million in summer programs that are free for most students. The cost is primarily being covered by federal stimulus money linked to the pandemic that forced most public schools here to close in March 2020.

Being back in a classroom — some for the first time in 15 months — students have the consistency and support that was not possible over the internet. Equitable and individualized social-emotional learning is the first thing the children at Johnson need, Cota says.

Over the last 15 months, educators have witnessed their students through a screen endure a multitude of hardships, including evictions, food insecurity, family layoffs and relatives getting sick — and even dying — from COVID-19.

During a year of school closures, referrals to local mental health agencies that treat children and teens rose, suicides among children ages 12 to 17 in Pima County increased, thousands of Tucson students failed classes, hundreds of high school seniors didn’t graduate, the number of calls to the Department of Child Safety for neglect and abuse climbed as did the number of children newly put into state care.

Even many kids with stable home lives saw their grades plummet. Teens had trouble concentrating — it was too hard to get the teacher’s attention and too easy to turn off their computer’s camera and slip back into bed. And teachers often struggled to know what was happening with their students as they taught into the void — a screen full of turned off cameras, just little black boxes with a name in each corner.

As more people get vaccinated (97% of Johnson’s staff) and schools get ready for what they hope will be a more typical school year, kids will need more than an academic foundation. Educators say they need connection, kindness, empathy and love — they need someone in their corner.

Today, they’re “little architects”

The incoming second graders at Johnson file down the hall on a Wednesday in mid-June with an orderliness that’s enhanced by social-distancing protocols.

The ones who have been here since March no longer need to hold their arms out to measure the distance. Their clothes are uniform — navy bottoms and maroon or white tops — but their masks show their interests, with images of unicorns, rainbows and superheroes.

About 75% the student body at Johnson came back in person when TUSD schools opened in March after a year of closures. But many of the students enrolled in summer school were ones who stayed home.

The kids enter the classroom and know exactly what to do. While happy, instrumental music plays in the background, they sit at their desks, separated by plastic dividers, and get right to work.

With their own personal glue stick, scissors and box of crayons, they’re building “champion-inventor stadiums.” Today, they’re “little architects,” says teacher Gabriella Campas.

“I hope that they want to continue to learn more about what’s around them and be curious about things that are in our lives,” she says. “And hopefully inspire them to be future engineers. I think it’s important for them to be exposed to this because I don’t believe most of these kids are exposed to this kind of fun, interactive science stuff.”

And while the incoming second graders at Johnson Primary are getting hands-on lessons in engineering, science, reading and math, the main purpose of summer school this year is for the young students to reconnect and build friendships after such a difficult school year.

A lot of Campas’ summer students came in person in March, but a few haven’t been in a classroom since March 2020.

With some of the COVID-19 stimulus dollars allotted to Johnson, Cota hired a reading interventionist, who provides individual or small group instruction to students who are struggling, and she wants to hire another. About half the children need such personalized help, which is far more than previous years, Cota says. After the social-emotional piece, academics need to be hit hard and routines need to be formed.

What do we want students to learn, and how will we know they’ve learned it? That’s the question now, Cota says.

Pre-COVID-19, the answer to that question was that students should learn the grade standards, but over the past year that answer has become more nuanced.

Students need human connection to be successful, Cota says. “Once that human connection is in play, they feel happy. They feel that they can master it. They know that there’s someone behind them that cares and believes in them.”

“We have to give them the listening ear, the caring heart, the creative lessons, project-based learning,” Cota says. “Then what’s our product? Creative thinkers, agents of their own learning, collaborative doers, self-motivated explorers. It’s not just about standards anymore. It’s much more.”

Struggling to express themselves

At Secrist Middle School, students from an eighth grade science class squeal with delight as they throw the Heliballs they assembled into the air. The young teens dodge and grab for the blinking globes with propellers that use motion-sensing technology to fly around their heads.

The heliball is just one of the hands-on projects these kids built during the two-week summer course.

Sculptures are on display that look like blown glass but are really made of plastic melted in a toaster oven — part of a lesson on figurative language. Kids cheer each other on, navigating cardboard robots through an obstacle course of upside down plastic pots — an engineering lesson. Colorful butterfly sculptures hanging from the ceiling demonstrate symmetry — a math lesson.

These hands-on projects are doing more than just teaching learning standards and allowing kids to reconnect. They’re helping kids get in touch with their emotions.

Teacher Elizabeth Powell motions to a student like she’s telling him to come toward her. He looks at her puzzled. She asks the class what she’s doing as she continues motioning.

A few students yell out — “nonverbal communication.”

“Nonverbal communication, right?” she says to them. “Communication happens in a lot of different ways. So then we’re talking about how we show emotion.”

Powell’s bright pink hair and glittery pink nails are as loud as her voice, which comes in handy when she’s giving the kids their morning pep talk in the gym. That morning she led them in a call and response: “I promise to always show kindness and respect. To try my best. To keep an open mind. And to stay positive.”

The special education teacher who is also coordinating Secrist’s summer programs says most of her students came back in person when schools opened in March and that you can tell the difference in the kids who didn’t. For them, she says the summer program is vital.

“Even kids who did not prior to this have problems, when they’re sitting in their room like a cell for a year, they’ve developed them,” she says. “These kids have been through a lot, and they just need people in their corner.”

Her small class is building sculptures out of found objects, really just a bunch of things someone might have stuffed away in a closet — old tapes and CDs, broken office chair wheels, errant puzzle pieces and bits of ribbon. The sculptures represent a metaphor for the students’ feelings and experiences.

The lesson teaches her students to get in touch with their emotions and experiences while also working on skills in creativity, brainstorming, writing, reading, figurative language and expression.

Powell is seeing more students struggling to express themselves. She and other educators are working with students on positive peer interactions and self image, as well as getting them excited about learning again.

Students at Secrist say that remote learning was lonely, it was hard to get the teacher’s attention and to pay attention themselves, there were distractions at home, and their grades suffered. Being back in school, many say they’re happy to be with other kids, excited to make new friends, they like the hands-on activities and it’s easier to focus.

Incoming eighth grader Karen Dee came back to school in March and had a relatable experience.

“When I came back, I was more focused, my grades were staying up, and I always had homework turned in,” she said. “Online was very distracting, and a lot of the stuff either malfunctioned or didn’t really work.”

Remote school and isolation have been especially hard on middle school students, a time when students typically come into their own, says Secrist Principal Debbee Garcia. As well, many have difficult home lives and suffered from not having a safe place to come to five days a week.

Garcia says kids who did poorly were not held back from moving on to the next grade. She expects there will be an academic gap, and it will be up to teachers to diagnose at what level kids are functioning.

The enhanced focus on socio-emotional learning will continue into next school year, she says. As teachers prepare, they are looking for ways to incorporate a socio-emotional component into the academic standard and curriculum roadmaps.

“How we’re getting back on track is that we’re celebrating our kids and really teaching to their strengths,” she says. “It’s about celebrating them as individuals. And with that, we also have to be very kind.”

Learning to learn

Maria Abalos walks around her American history class at Tucson High and chats with students as they work independently. She walks by one student (who she says is brilliant) and gives him a little nudge as he slumps in his chair, his head in his hand. She asks how his project is going.

For the final project to the two-week summer school course students chose from a menu of possibilities: They could, for example, write a song about being an African American soldier in the Civil War, a diary entry about being a member of an Indigenous tribe during the Westward Expansion or a children’s book about being an English colonist in the 13 colonies.

This assignment is in place of a multiple-choice final exam. Students did enough of that during remote learning, Abalos says.

Abalos has been teaching for nearly 27 years and thought she had been through everything. But during COVID-19, she often felt helpless as a teacher. Face-to-face, she can see if her students get the material or not.

A child is staring at his phone, and she code switches to get his attention — “Why aren’t you finished? Stop playing around,” she says in Spanish. He perks up and says she sounds like his mom.

Abalos is Mexican-American and that helps the kids relate to her, in a school where the student body is nearly 70% Latino.

Abalos’ summer students are making up for a failed class. Many of them were at home alone while doing online school and many lacked structure, she says. But mostly what they missed is each other, and a connection to an adult.

“It’s not that any of these students can’t do the work,” she says. “It’s that they are missing whatever kind of support, and the challenge of teaching summer school is to make sure you provide that support.”

She sees a lot of hesitancy in her students, many who lack the confidence to know whether they can accomplish something. Her priority is about teaching them to learn, not necessarily about what they are learning.

“I don’t care if they learn about the Civil War or the Revolutionary War or the 13 colonies,” she says. “I care if they have built skills to be able to learn. That’s the real work, especially at summer school, because I think that’s part of the reason why they weren’t successful, is that they didn’t have those skills. It’s the computer skills. It’s the critical thinking skills. It’s being able to process information. And that has been my focus.”

She showed one of her students how to use the brochure template in Microsoft Word to do his final assignment — a brochure for a museum about Indigenous people during the American Expansion. When Jesus Moreno started using the template, he was hesitant to try something new, so Abalos taught him how.

She responded to his hesitancy and in doing so wasn’t just teaching him about American history. She was teaching him to learn.

Moreno is 19 and was supposed to graduate this year, but he didn’t have all the credits he needed. He lives with his older sister and nieces and nephews and had trouble finding space at home to focus on remote learning.

He’s angry that he’s still in school. He feels like his class didn’t receive the help they needed during COVID-19. But when Abalos sits next to him to see the progress on his brochure, chatting with him like he’s an old friend, his shoulders relax and his anger is gone.

Abalos doesn’t agree with the idea that COVID-19 has created a big learning gap. It’s about perspective.

“What is it that we really want kids to learn?” she says. “Are we still really wanting them to memorize all the states and the capitals and the presidents? Or now that they have all this information at their hands on a computer, how do they synthesize it?”

There’s more focus now on skill-based learning than before COVID-19. Instead of asking students to memorize a poem about what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Abalos is teaching kids how to tell if the website they’re reading about Columbus is a reliable resource.

She’s teaching them to foster the personal accountability and resiliency that she sees in them. She isn’t just teaching them what happened to people throughout history, she’s teaching them that people persisted.

“We’ve got to find a way to carry on and be resilient,” she says. “Looking at history to see how people faced those challenges and were ever able to be resilient in them — hopefully, in another five, 10 years or whenever we teach COVID, we will talk about the resiliency that people had too.”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

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