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Regained opportunities: San Luis Coastal school district offered totally revamped summer education and enrichment classes—for free 

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In January 2021, when schools were still shut down and pandemic fatigue was at an all-time high, San Luis Coastal Unified School District Superintendent Eric Prater was busy scheming to overhaul a system he felt had always been a "lost opportunity" in education: summer school.

click to enlarge BUGGY A San Luis Coastal student learns the science behind "critters" in gardens at the district's Summer Experience. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS COASTAL UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Photo Courtesy Of San Luis Coastal Unified School District
  • BUGGY A San Luis Coastal student learns the science behind "critters" in gardens at the district's Summer Experience.

Whenever the COVID-19 fog lifted and students returned to school, Prater wanted his district to be able to provide a more robust and improved "summer experience," as it would be called, with more classes, more flexibility, and more engagement than the traditional model.

"Dr. Prater recognizes that the summer has traditionally been a lost opportunity for schools. Our system doesn't really capitalize on that opportunity," said Jeff Martin, principal of the district's Summer Experience, which wrapped up its first season on July 29. "There's typically something that's called the summer slide. When you're not in class, you're not engaged, you're not learning, there's a loss of learning that happens with all students. ... The other piece was really just what this can do for working families."

In contrast to the typical half-day summer school, San Luis Coastal's program ran all day and offered a variety of academic or "enrichment" classes for students in first through 12th grade—from the usual subjects like math, language arts, and history, to outside-the-box classes like culinary arts, ceramics, guitar, coding/video game design, and creek restoration.

Free to all students and families, with free bus transportation and meals provided, the Summer Experience focused on being accessible and flexible for all students and families, according to Debbie Blow, a retired superintendent from the Orcutt Union School District, who Prater called on to help put together the program.

click to enlarge ON STAGE Performing Arts students prepare in full costume for their outdoor drama production as part of San Luis Coastal school district's new Summer Experience program. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS COASTAL UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Photo Courtesy Of San Luis Coastal Unified School District
  • ON STAGE Performing Arts students prepare in full costume for their outdoor drama production as part of San Luis Coastal school district's new Summer Experience program.

"His vision for it was that it be very flexible for families, highly engaging, and that students absolutely learn and gain new skills from it, but that they're having fun at the same time," Blow said. "The first thing we did was [form] a committee of stakeholders throughout the community—parents, community members, administrators, teachers—and put together a framework."

According to Blow and Martin, San Luis Coastal's Summer Experience is unique. It draws on aspects of innovative summer school programs from around the U.S. as well as "research and best practices." But the final product is an original brainchild of the San Luis Coastal community, they said.

"There's a smattering of different programs throughout the nation, but there isn't necessarily one locally or even in the state that we looked to replicate," Martin said.

When the district announced the program last school year and opened up enrollment, Martin said the "demand was tremendous."

"There were classes that were full on the first day [of enrollment]. People were calling and emailing frustrated that we didn't have enough spots," he said. "Safe to say we had over half of our students in our first through eighth grade levels participating in our summer program. That was pretty eye-opening."

The entire effort—which spanned six weeks (a pair of three-week sessions) and five district campuses—required a total of 175 teachers and employees. About half of those workers were district employees and the other half came from other local school districts and communities as far away as the Central Valley and San Diego.

Early feedback on the Summer Experience has been positive, the administrators said, but they are asking parents and students to complete a survey about their experiences to better understand what went well and what didn't.

Two parents who spoke to New Times about their kids' time in the program had mixed opinions. SLO parent Heather Johnson said she found the logistics of the program "a little bit hard to navigate," and her son, who signed up to play sports, didn't feel his teacher and peers were too engaged in the activities.

"I love the idea of it," Johnson said, "but we just didn't have the greatest experience. I think it was trying to do too much at the same time."

Another SLO parent, Heidi Rose, said that her three kids enjoyed their classes. One of her daughters took creek restoration, photography, ceramics, and English. Her son learned guitar, and her youngest daughter took a leadership class.

"I was a little bit afraid they'd be hating it, but in the end they always come home glad about the experience," Rose said. "Honestly, it's the first summer I've ever actually needed child care. My job right now is not flexible, so this was actually a perfect saving grace. ... We don't have the money to do all of those camps."

click to enlarge POOL PARTY San Luis Coastal school district's Summer Experience included swim classes. Instructor Chris Jones prepares students for safety on the first day of summer swim class. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAN LUIS COASTAL UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • Photo Courtesy Of San Luis Coastal Unified School District
  • POOL PARTY San Luis Coastal school district's Summer Experience included swim classes. Instructor Chris Jones prepares students for safety on the first day of summer swim class.

Rose added that the summer sessions were especially good for her son, a sixth grader, who had a tough time with virtual learning during the pandemic.

"I felt like it was really beneficial. It was a good call for his teacher to recommend it. It was good for him to be around other kids for a longer period of time," she said.

According to San Luis Coastal's Martin and Blow, what Rose identified—recovering social and academic development lost during the pandemic—was a crucial aspect of introducing the Summer Experience this year.

"It was imperative that we do this," Martin said, "and to have that opportunity to have students working with adults and being around other students face-to-face in that environment, to mitigate some of those impacts we've seen from the pandemic.

"It was great," he continued. "Going around and talking to kids, I see how excited they are about learning, being in the swimming pool, kids who were scared of the water but are learning how to swim, kids who now know they love working in woodshop or ceramics, or they want to pursue a career with drones ... all of those things are really neat to be able to see."

Looking ahead, Martin said the school district is focused on what it needs to do to continue the program and make it sustainable for summers to come.

"So far, word on the street has been really, really positive," he said. "There's always pockets of things we can do better, but we welcome those because we want to continue to build on this program and make it even better going forward." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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