Nearly 60 percent of students who consistently attended Tuscaloosa's summer learning program avoided summer learning loss in reading, compared to 16 percent for students who did not attend regularly.
In math, 48 percent of students who regularly attended summer learning days in Tuscaloosa retained all skills gained in the prior academic year, compared to 23 percent of students who did not attend regularly.
Students attended Tuscaloosa summer learning programs in 2021, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Large racial disparities in educational outcomes: Tuscaloosa City Schools is a school district that serves about 11,000 pre-K through 12th grade students, more than half of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. Among those students, large academic gaps exist between White and non-White students. These disparities can be observed at an early age. For example, in the 2015-2016 school year, reading proficiency among White third-graders was nearly four times higher than their Black counterparts.
- Summer learning loss widening achievement gaps across grade levels: School leaders in Tuscaloosa recognized that educational disparities in the school district could be attributed in part to summer learning loss, the phenomenon of students losing academic progress over the summer. From their knowledge and experience, leaders believed that a lack of intellectually stimulating activity and engagement over the summer was causing meaningful losses to learning, and these losses could compound over time and worsen long-term academic and life outcomes.
- Summer school was failing to realize its potential: Prior to 2017, the summer school program at Tuscaloosa City Schools was not systematically organized, not well attended, and geared toward the purpose of remedial (rather than additive) education. Only a small portion of students attended summer school to recover academic credit. Parents sent their children to summer school only when prompted by the school (generally as a result of poor academic performance) and were required to submit an application in order to secure a spot for their child.
- A lack of infrastructure and resources set up to improve and scale summer learning: Due in part to summer school’s structure at the time, the summer school program prior to 2017 did not have the capacity or flexibility to expand into a more robust program without several changes. The school district’s budget did not devote enough resources or employees to summer learning and processes did not yet exist to hire and compensate new staff to help manage and run the programs. This also meant that there was no dedicated staff member working across the district to coordinate summer learning efforts.
- A robust summer learning program: Following extensive outreach to parents to understand student and family needs, Tuscaloosa designed a four-day-per-week program open to all families in Tuscaloosa, initially at a cost of $50 per week. The program included a wide range of academic and recreational activities led by high-quality, district-certified teachers and local community organizations. The program includes free breakfast, lunch, and two snacks, at much lower cost than comparable summer programs.
- Dynamic, educational, and fun programming: Rather than simply an extension of the school year, school officials wanted summer learning to generate excitement among families. This meant including a variety of enrichment programming in addition to academic instruction, such as field trips and other activities.
- Coordination through a single district office: Andrew Maxey, Director of Strategic Initiatives, was appointed by the district’s superintendent, Dr. Mike Daria, to explore options for revamping summer learning and continues to manage its implementation. This has streamlined decision-making and made administrative support available to all of the schools as they navigated a tremendous expansion of their efforts.
- Making summer learning a default, rather than an “afterthought”: Tuscaloosa City Schools has worked to change how the community thought of summer learning and generate new norms. For example, they reframed the take-up process as “registration” rather than “application,” making clear to parents that seats were available to any student who was interested in taking it. The school district also removed summer learning’s required attendance and connection to retention.
- Significant reductions to summer learning loss: Tuscaloosa found that students who attended at least three quarters of summer learning days were more likely to avoid summer learning loss. 60 percent of students who attended at least three quarters of summer learning days preserved their academic progress in reading, compared to 16 percent of those who did not. In math, 48 percent of students who attended most days preserved their progress, compared to 23 percent of their counterparts.
- Normalizing summer learning and raising standards: Tuscaloosa school leaders say that academic-year learning used to be the district’s primary focus while summer learning was an afterthought. The shift to robust summer learning changed this. Today, students and parents alike express enthusiasm and excitement about summer learning and have come to think of it as a crucial part of students’ academic experience. To help create this shift, the district turned the application process into “registration,” implying that seats were available to all who claimed them. School leaders also removed attendance requirements and decoupled summer learning from retention.
- Securing city investment in summer learning: Ongoing collaboration between school leaders helped raise the profile of summer learning for the city’s mayor, Walt Maddox. Ultimately, in 2019, Mayor Maddox made summer learning a key plank in his administration’s “Elevate Tuscaloosa” initiative, a one-percent increase to city’s sales tax in order to raise $500 million for municipal investments.
Keys to Success
- Single point of accountability who runs the summer program: Andrew Maxey, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Tuscaloosa City Schools, says that “if it’s summer, it flows through my office.” From the beginning of the program’s expansion, Maxey has overseen the program by managing department heads, coordinating with facilities, reconfiguring payroll, and addressing logistical challenges. Because every department within the school district is involved in summer learning, district officials have found that it’s critical to have a single point of accountability and decision making across those resources.
- Partnership with local organizations: Community partners provide much of the programming included in Tuscaloosa’s summer learning, and school officials say that the program would not have been possible without them. Over the past several years, Tuscaloosa formed a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA, which both provide enrichment programming for many of the district summer learning programs. The school district pays for these entities to provide a half day of enrichment programming, thereby providing a full-day experience for kids that remains affordable to parents. These partnerships are critical in making the program feasible and cost effective.
- Early planning and leadership-buy in: From the very first expansion of summer learning in 2017, planning began early. As soon as the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, then-superintendent Dr. Mike Daria initiated conversations with school officials on how summer learning could be improved. Once a plan was in place, implementation started as early as February and registration occurred in April. Throughout the planning process, superintendent Daria actively engaged with schools and principals about the program.
- A mayor using the bully pulpit for summer learning: Mayor Maddox led a public campaign for city investment in multiple areas of economic development, “Elevate Tuscaloosa,” and framed education as a crucial part of the effort. The mayor’s emphasis on education helped persuade the public that summer learning was important and built public support for the increase in sales tax that was required to fund the initiative.
- Full-day programming with broad appeal and evidence-based design: Tuscaloosa based the design of their summer learning program on parents’ top priorities: all-day learning, enrichment programming, and affordability. After attending the National Summer Learning Conference in 2017, led by the National Summer Learning Association, the school district refined the program further to adhere to national best practices, like reducing class sizes. The result is a full-day, five-week program with high-quality instruction from certified teachers and enrichment programming led by community organizations, all offered at much lower cost than alternatives.
- Targeting students who need the most help: Tuscaloosa’s summer learning program makes extra efforts to identify and serve students who are at risk of falling behind. School officials conduct extensive outreach to families of these children, sending letters home and making calls to maximize the chances that students who are falling behind participate in summer learning.
- Confusion over the variation in school programming: Early on, some parents believed that the school district had two separate educational offerings, “enrichment programs” and “summer school,” and many parents preferred the former to the latter. The reality was that all schools were running the same summer learning program. It took time and effort to clarify this for many parents and it is a continued effort to reassure parents that no matter which individual school their child goes to, they will receive the same high-quality educational instruction and enrichment opportunities.
- Not all students have access to transportation, creating a barrier to attendance: Tuscaloosa City Schools is continuing to work to ensure that all students have a way to get to their schools for summer learning programming. Because transportation services are not funded directly at the federal level during summer months, this is a barrier that has been challenging to address, particularly due to the high cost associated with providing this service.
- A complicated adjustment to payroll and other human resources processes: Moving to an expanded summer learning program meant bringing on hundreds of new employees during months that were normally quieter than the academic year. Ultimately, the district found ways to simplify processes, such as transitioning away from using timesheets for some positions in order to lighten the payroll burden.
- Collaboration with federal funders was challenging at times: Because summer learning was and continues to be funded in part by federal grants, the school district worked closely with federal grant officials on the expansion of summer learning. However, there were some instances in which significant collaborative work and negotiation was required to navigate compliance with grant guidelines and rules while designing and providing programs that reflect best practice.
The Tuscaloosa Board of Education identifies summer learning as a key priority
Educational data reported to the Alabama State Department of Education showed significant racial disparities in educational outcomes. The school board approves a comprehensive strategic plan aimed at addressing this gap, with a focus on summer school. At this time, the school’s summer learning program is structured around addressing deficits, or “credit recovery.”
Putting out initial feelers on an expanded summer learning program
The school begins to collect feedback and runs surveys of over 1,000 parents to determine their needs for summer learning.
Initial summer learning program experiences high demand; community leaders step up to help
The school establishes three summer learning programs with funds awarded by federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants and one enrichment program with local funds. By the second day of registration, the enrichment program was filled to capacity with a waiting list of 250 students. Tuscaloosa Schools Superintendent Daria speaks to the Chamber of Commerce and explains that with more funds, the schools could serve every child on the waiting list. The Chamber raises $40,000 to support the goal.
An opportunity for learning and continuous improvement arises
School officials are invited to attend the National Summer Learning conference hosted by the National Summer Learning Association and RAND releases a major study on summer learning outcomes. The opportunity to meet with other educators and learn from national research affirms that Tuscaloosa is on the right track and equips them with new insights to apply in the expansion of the summer program.
Tuscaloosa City Schools refines, expands, and normalizes summer learning
Following the immediate demand and enthusiasm for the first iteration of summer learning, Tuscaloosa schools took several steps to streamline and improve the program while continuing to increase enrollment.
New tax levy provides public funds to summer learning
Tuscaloosa Mayor Maddox introduces the “Elevate Tuscaloosa” plan, which includes funding for the local economy, tourism industry, and a specific funding stream for investment in summer learning. The initiative included a 1% sales tax increase to create $500 million in city investments, and aims to set aside about $3 million toward summer learning.
Summer learning program continues to grow rapidly
In the last pre-COVID summer learning program, Tuscaloosa taught 1,400 students, up from 1,000 the previous year.
A focus on building for sustainability
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Tuscaloosa received federal relief funds that have helped secure the summer learning program’s immediate future. School leaders are now preparing for the expiration of those funds by setting up an entirely new, independent, non-profit “backbone” organization. This organization would be independent from the school district and be equipped to fundraise and support long-term summer learning.
Confronting the problem
- The Board of Education takes action on the achievement gap: In 2015, the Tuscaloosa Board of Education approved a Strategic Plan aimed at addressing the disparities in educational outcomes between White and non-White students. The plan included changes related to curricula, human resources, and facilities, placing an emphasis on summer school.
- Recognizing limitations in the current model: School leaders at the time observed that the summer school program was not living up to its potential. At the high school level, summer school strictly served the purpose of credit recovery. For elementary and middle school, it was a required remedy to poor academic performance. Around the same time, the then-superintendent Dr. Mike Daria began thinking about how summer school could be improved and reached out to district staff to solicit ideas.
- Identifying a gap in the market: One of the superintendent’s first directives was to inventory and catalog all of the summer learning opportunities available to students in the greater Tuscaloosa region. This research found that most programs offered some combination of full-day learning, enrichment, and affordability, but rarely did a program offer all three of those things. School leaders anticipated that demand would be strong for summer learning offerings that provided full-day learning and enrichment at an affordable price.
Designing the strategy
- Finding ways to make summer learning dynamic and fun: As district leaders geared up for the first summer, Andrew Maxey, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Tuscaloosa City Schools, and his colleague Lesley Bruinton, the Director of Public Relations at Tuscaloosa City Schools, solicited input from teachers and staff on how to make the summer experience exciting to students and parents. They conducted two surveys, ultimately reaching over 1,000 parents. Both surveys consistently showed that parents wanted affordable, full-day enrichment programming.
- Allowing student/parent input on course selection: Another way that Tuscaloosa made summer learning feel unique and dynamic was to allow course selection from students. While normal summer learning was remedial, Tuscaloosa City Schools chose to allow students and parents to select the programs that most interested them.
- Putting certified teachers at the center of the program: Along with being a fun, dynamic, camp-like experience, Tuscaloosa believed that summer learning should be a full-fledged educational program. For that reason, school officials made sure that the program was taught by district-certified teachers who could provide high quality instruction.
- Leveraging existing community partners: In order to provide a fun and enriching experience and make the program affordable, Tuscaloosa formed partnerships with local community organizations to provide part of the programming. With community organizations on board, the school district ensured that each community partner had what it needed to succeed (access to space, computer labs, etc). This helped expose many students to organizations and programming that they had not previously encountered, such as culinary learning, dance, Boy Scouts of America activities, and others.
Allocating the funding
- Federal grant funds to cover initial expansion of the program: The first year of summer learning expansion was supported by the U.S. Department of Education's 21st Century Learning Centers Program, which supports academic learning centers that are outside of regular school hours. The district also allocated funds from its general fund.
- Public school budget funding for baseline operations: In addition to federal funding, the school district used a large amount of their own funding to support summer learning. In the most recent year, the school district invested $265,000 from their budget into summer learning and $164,000 from the district’s federal Title I funds. These funds were braided with contributions from federal relief funds (CARES Act) and state allocations connected to the newly enacted literacy act.
- Parent contributions to support the expansion: To help cover the cost of the first summer, Tuscaloosa charged each parent $50 per child per week. This was a highly affordable rate in comparison to child care or other summer learning and enrichment programs in Tuscaloosa, some of which cost as much as $400 for two weeks of half day learning.
- Resources to ensure universal access from the Chamber of Commerce: In the first year, the summer learning program filled up in only two days of registration. In response, the Tuscaloosa Chamber of Commerce quickly raised $40,000 to allow all families on the waiting list to participate.
- New city funds directed to summer learning: In January of 2019, Mayor Walt Maddox proposed a new public investment initiative, Elevate Tuscaloosa, aimed at improving the quality of life for Tuscaloosa’s residents. Recognizing the success of Tuscaloosa’s summer learning program to date, the mayor specifically dedicated funding in the proposal toward summer learning. The proposal passed in April of 2019, ultimately devoting nearly $3 million to summer learning.
- A combination of federal, local, and new tax revenue to fund summer learning: The cost of summer learning in 2021 was roughly $1.7 million to support 2,049 students. The allocated sources of funds for summer learning were 36.8% federal education funding, 35.4% emergency relief funding (CARES Act), 15.7% from Elevate Tuscaloosa and district resources, and 12% from state education funds. A key to the success of Summer Learning in Tuscaloosa has been the successful “braiding” of these disparate funding sources to create coherent, high-capacity, high-quality programs.
Implementing the plan
- Putting the pieces in place: In preparation for the first year of expanded summer learning, school officials took several actions to line up staff and resources to run the program. School leaders recruited teachers and solicited ideas on classes and programming to provide, made changes to payroll and human resources systems to allow additional staff, formed partnerships with local organizations, and arranged for transportation, among others.
- The first cohort of summer learners arrives: The first year of summer learning entailed three programs which served 351 elementary, middle, and high school students. It was clear to school officials immediately that the program was a success. Parents and students raved about their experience and began to report “happy kid data” — the district’s shorthand for anecdotal stories about students having a great experience.
- Digging into national research and incorporating learnings into the program: In the fall following the first year of summer learning programming, Andrew Maxey and Lesley Bruinton attended the National Summer Learning Conference to learn about programs around the country. The conference helped the district understand what they had done right, receive resources on how to improve the program, and gather information that would help make the case for further political and financial support back home.
Measuring and refining the approach
- Drawing support and insights from national research: In the fall following the first implementation of Tuscaloosa’s summer learning program, Maxey and Bruinton had the opportunity to travel to the National Summer Learning Conference. That year, RAND released their long-term study on summer learning, “Learning from Summer: Effects of Voluntary Summer Learning Programs on Low-Income Urban Youth.” Maxey and Bruinton learned that Tuscaloosa's approach was consistent with many of the recommendations that came from RAND's research, and picked up several additional best practices that helped build on the success of the summer learning program's first year. For example, the research led the district to shrink class sizes and remove attendance requirements.
- Focusing the program on students who benefit the most: After the first year, Tuscaloosa looked at data on which students participated and found that most of the students were considered academically proficient. After reflecting on this, the district chose to invest heavily in targeting students who were not proficient for summer learning. Students who were identified as needing additional help received letters home, calls from principals and teachers, and even the superintendent made calls to families. The school was “relentless” in its outreach to students who would benefit the most from extra learning.
- Normalizing summer learning: In the three years following the launch of Tuscaloosa’s summer learning program, the district took several steps to broaden the community’s perception of summer learning, converting it from an afterthought into a central component of public education in Tuscaloosa. Among other changes, the district replaced the term “summer school” in favor of “summer learning,” converted the “application” process into a “registration” process, removed attendance requirements, and decoupled summer learning from retention decisions.
- Launching a Summer learning backbone organization: District leaders believe that in order to make the summer learning reach its intended scale and ambitions, it will need a “backbone organization” to support its operations through fundraising and grant management with an emphasis on state and local resources. District leaders have shared the idea with the city, county commission, school district, all three local institutions of higher learning, the Chamber of Commerce, and the public library, among others, with the hope of having this organization up and running by the time federal funding from the CARES Act expires.