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Cassia schools begins full summer school program to fill gaps left by COVID-19 pandemic

BURLEY — After years of offering only a limited migrant summer school and an after-school program, Cassia County School District began offering a full summer school program to all students this week to catch up those who fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The district’s move back to a full-blown program was prompted by the need to fill the educational gaps in students after the pandemic, said Raft River Elementary School Principal Melina Ficek, who is coordinating the program for district.

“It was mostly due to COVID. Students came back to school further behind than before. We knew we had to fill some holes,” she said.

During previous years the district offered limited summer school to migrant programs or secondary level students who needed credit recovery, Cassia County School District Spokesperson Debbie Critchfield wrote in an email to the Times-News.

“The Cassia School District hasn’t offered open and full summer school programs for any student in more than 20 years and perhaps longer. Those around now can’t recall it outside very specific schools or student participation,” she said.

About one in six students out of White Pine Elementary School’s 600 students showed up for the first day of summer school on Monday.

Across the district 840 students signed up out of an average 5,500 student population.

Parents were “thrilled,” when the decision was made to hold a summer program, White Pine Elementary School Principal Diana Gill said. Snd the students seem glad to be there.

The summer program was offered district wide and all the elementary schools in the district signed up for it, Ficek said.

The programs at the secondary level schools all look different, she said, because each school fashioned a program based on what it needs.

“There was really a need for it at the younger grade levels,” Gill said, “Especially in reading, and that, of course, affects everything.”

Critchfield said the board and central administration started talking about the district’s summer programs in January.

“The impetus was to offset learning loss that was anticipated at the end of last school year. We are no different than other districts who want to supplement learning in any form. Clearly every student experienced a disruption in learning, but it is most felt by the earliest learners,” Critchfield said.

The district did not have the budget to offer extended school programs taught by certified teachers in years past.

“Although it’s recognized that summer learning gives students needed academic contact throughout the summer, there were no funds to support it. Teachers would typically spend the first few weeks of a new school year refreshing the learning standards of the previous year before moving on,” she said.

The “summer slide” as it’s referred to, Critchfield said, is a real thing and the disruption to schools last spring compounded the problem.

The summer slide is where students forget some of what they learned the previous year during the summer.

Critchfield said board members were concerned that the combination of those two factors would impact students longer than a year.

The cost of the summer program for the Cassia School District will run about $600,000 — with $490,000 coming from Gov. Brad Little’s learning loss money and $100,000 from federal stimulus funds.

The district’s buses will run routes to pick up and drop off the students.

“With the federal stimulus funds, Cassia was in a financial position to offer learning opportunities district wide,” Critchfield said.

What other districts are doing

The Twin Falls School District’s summer school program doubled its enrollment this year, district spokesperson Eva Craner said.

“The district made a concerted effort to involve more students to address student needs and learning loss brought on by the pandemic,” Craner wrote in an email to the Times-News.

The district hired more teachers for summer school to help keep class sizes smaller than normal and allow for more individualized instruction to help with learning loss, she said.

There were no other changes to the program this year.

Minidoka County School District did not alter its summer programs this year, Michele Widmier, federal programs and school improvement director said.

The districts holds three programs, a migrant summer school, secondary credit recovery and summer catch up for the alternative junior high school.

“We are not seeing increased enrollment in the summer programs this year,” Widmier said. “In fact, at the elementary level, enrollment is a bit down from past years.”

Back in class

Two hours into the first day of summer school, first graders at White Pine were already busy solving math problems.

Sixth grade teacher Melanie Clark had asked her summer school fifth and sixth graders what they wanted to work on during the next few weeks — and many of the answers were math related.

“I had looped up with my classes and I knew where the holes were,’ Clark said.

Students were also being pulled out of classes to undergo testing, which will be performed again at the end to measure growth, Gill said.

The students will focus heavily on reading, writing and math Monday through Thursday and have a “fun day” at the school on Friday, where students rotate among the available teachers who will provide a fun activity based on their own hobbies or expertise, Gill said.

The K-6 students will also participate in a theater class where they will perform in plays.

At Raft River Elementary, Ficek said, students will have more opportunities for STEM learning and experiments.

“Summer school in Cassia is an optional opportunity for parents to extend the school setting, but in a more loose unconventional way through summer programs designed to provide learning, but in ways not possible throughout the year,” Critchfield said.

Students are also fed breakfast and lunch and leave at 12:30 p.m.

First grade teacher Paige Coats has taught summer school one other year and she thinks the smaller class will help her students catch up.

Teachers knew students would be coming back to the classrooms after the shutdown with deficits, she said.

“It made the teachers better. We knew we had to find ways to teach more effectively,” Coats said.

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