Reconnection, Not Remediation, at West Philadelphia Summer Learning Program

August 25, 2021

By Julie Berger, M.Ed., Senior Research Coordinator, Office of School & Community Engagement, Penn GSE

Caroline Watts, Ed.D., Director, Office of School & Community Engagement, Penn GSE; Field Center Faculty Director

In the early Winter of 2020, as we began to face the likelihood of a full academic year of virtual learning for most Philadelphia students, The Office of School and Community Engagement at Penn Graduate School of Education (GSE)—which facilitates and supports partnerships with schools and communities in order to improve the educational outcomes and overall wellbeing of children and youth in Philadelphia—began asking our colleagues and our school partners: How can we start preparing for in-person school re-entry for Fall 2021? What will be most needed, most useful for students, for families, and for educators? And how can Penn GSE help?

There was a long list of concerns: about young students whose introduction to formal schooling had been entirely virtual; about widening skill gaps; about isolation and loss of crucial social supports; about student social and emotional learning and mental health; about educator burn-out. The sum of these concerns pointed to what was most sorely lacking for many students during the 2020–2021 school year: their overall connection to school. The summer emerged as a prime opportunity to re-engage children with schooling—not as a means of “catching up,” but rather with a focus on bridging to the coming school year by building relationships, confidence, and, most importantly, joyful school-based experiences.

Working closely with School District of Philadelphia partners, a team from Penn GSE and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships set about designing and launching an in-person summer learning program based in West Philadelphia and primarily serving students from five local K–8 schools: Andrew Hamilton, Benjamin Comegys, Henry C. Lea, Penn Alexander, and S. Weir Mitchell. Run five days a week over six weeks in the Penn Alexander building, this program brought over 200 students in 1st through 9th grades back to school. Working with faculty and staff from the Philadelphia Writing Project, the Responsive Math Teaching Project, the Center for Professional Learning, and Penn GSE’s school and mental health counseling programs, Penn GSE wrapped the Netter Center’s annual summer program—which already leverages strong school-year relationships with students and families—in an added layer of academic and mental health support.

Penn GSE’s collaborating faculty and staff developed customized curricula that centered interactive learning and foundational skills – not for remediation, but for reconnecting students to the school experience. A robust staff of teachers, counselors, coaches, and classroom leaders brought these lessons to life, creating a tightly woven safety net of supportive adults. Beyond core math and literacy skills, these lessons also embedded social and emotional skills that will be crucial to children’s successful return to in-person learning: being in physical space together, working together, engaging in productive struggle, managing frustration and conflict. Further bolstering these skills was a full team of counselors and social and emotional learning coaches, who led activities focused on such themes as resilience and social justice, and who met individually with students.

Each day saw beautiful scenes of students measuring each other, writing and drawing in journals, discussing protest movements, creating classroom murals, and even designing their own dream schools through interviewing each other. Students were genuinely happy to be back together, as were teachers and other program staff. Parents and caregivers reached out eagerly at family events for materials and resources and reported their children were happy at camp and eager to return every day.

This program aimed to be a bridge back to full in-person learning—a way for students and educators alike to practice being back together and to shake off the cobwebs of being apart for so long. One of the elements that made this initiative so fruitful was its whole-hearted focus on joyful learning. There was no testing, no grading—which is not to say there was no internal assessment and recalibration. As teachers gauged individual students’ skill levels and needs, they adjusted their plans, as well as leveraged the curriculum coaches and support teachers who were present to provide more individualized support.

The summer learning program put into practice what we’ve long known: Students who have supportive, positive relationships with adults at school are more likely to attend, more likely to engage, and more likely to find overall success at school. These efforts were made possible by grants from Penn’s inaugural Projects for Progress initiative and the William Penn Foundation Family Recovery Fund—funds that enabled us to significantly bolster support and resources for a typically underserved community.

We saw what was possible when those within and outside the university who care about children’s wellbeing, learning, and success have the financial means to put best practices into action. We are now looking ahead to the school year and future summers, eager for how Penn can continue to invest more deeply in its surrounding community.

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