Building Better Summers: Using the Wallace Foundation’s Summer Learning Toolkit to Strengthen Programs and Communities

Every Hour Counts
8 min readJun 13, 2022

Summer program managers all over the country are moving at a fast clip to launch a third summer supporting young people to learn, grow, and thrive in spite of the toll the pandemic has taken on their academic, social, and emotional learning. While much of the success of summer programs relies on intermediaries and program providers who responded to needs fueled by COVID-19 and the resultant infusion of federal funding, high-quality summer learning programs that yield positive outcomes are rooted in lessons learned from the largest study on summer learning to date and the two publications that emerged from it.

In 2011, The Wallace Foundation launched the National Summer Learning Project (NSLP), engaging school districts and their community partners in Boston; Dallas; Duval County, Florida; Pittsburgh; and Rochester, New York to develop and improve summer learning programs. The RAND Corporation conducted a study in concert with the summer learning programs to learn whether and how voluntary summer programs that combined academics and enrichment could help young people succeed in school.

Getting to Work on Summer Learning, 2nd Ed.

RAND synthesized its findings and recommendations in Getting to Work on Summer Learning, now in its second edition. The Summer Learning Toolkit is a companion guide that helps practitioners and summer program managers apply RAND’s recommendations through aligned tools, templates and guidance.

Summer Learning Toolkit

We checked in with two organizations that participated in the NSLP — Boston After School & Beyond and the Greater Rochester Afterschool & Summer Alliance — to see how that work continues to inform their approach to summer learning.

Boston: Leveraging Coordination Across Partners and Prioritizing Attendance

Boston After School & Beyond (Boston Beyond) works beyond the school day and year to connect children from low-income families with engaging experiences that advance their life outcomes, including implementing summer programs at over 230 sites around Boston, where young people get an academic boost, build essential skills, and foster positive relationships with caring adults in high quality programs throughout the City of Boston.

“Participation in the NSLP has allowed Boston After School & Beyond to rapidly scale the impact and reach of summer learning in the City of Boston, turning our city into a classroom,” Wil Cardwell, Boston Beyond’s Director of Summer Learning, reflected.

Cardwell also shared that Boston Beyond has since worked to foster deep ties with Boston Public Schools, local community-based organizations, and public and private industries to prioritize high-quality summer learning programs, an asset which proved extremely valuable at the onset of the COVID pandemic. Boston Beyond was able to keep its partners connected and informed so that they could all work together to keep in-person options available throughout the pandemic. Cardwell attributes this partly to lessons learned from the NSLP: regular and consistent communication and collaboration are critical. Because of this consistent collaboration across partners, Boston area families were able to continuously rely on high-quality summer learning options that kept young people safe and learning in the summer months. The program model even informed district plans to reopen schools safely.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently awarded $4.5M to Boston Beyond, which will disseminate the funds to programs while also providing training, coaching, evaluation and other supports. The approach for the initiative came together through thought partnership that focused on the broad and diverse: Boston Beyond collaborated with leaders and practitioners from other Massachusetts cities to envision a partnership with parameters that would allow for variation among cities and programs, with a focus on young people’s learning loss recovery.

RAND’s research found that students need to attend at least 20 days over the course of the summer program to experience academic benefits, and that strong program attendance produced ongoing benefits for students. With this in mind, Boston Beyond collaboratively developed a baseline set of quality standards with attendance as the highest priority measure for programs funded through this initiative.

Boston Summer Attendance Tracker Guidance

The Boston Summer Attendance Tracker was developed to standardize attendance tracking across program sites and enable a real-time snapshot of attendance rates. Daily attendance tracking can help to spot problems early so staff can focus on personalized outreach to absent students and their families. The downloadable spreadsheet and guide can be adapted and used to track attendance and view summary and cumulative attendance data.

“Increasing access to enrichment is crucial for helping students recover from the pandemic,” said Boston Beyond Executive Director Chris Smith. “We are excited to contribute to this statewide approach and support Boston’s youth development programs.”

With growing interest in leveraging high-quality summer programs to move the needle on academic learning loss over the last several years, an infusion of federal, state, and local funds has been invested in supporting young people through the volatility created by the pandemic. These funds create an exciting opportunity to support many more young people to continue growing, learning, and thriving in summer. Leveraging Toolkit recommendations and resources will help program leaders maximize the potential impact on outcomes for as many young people as possible.

Rochester: Focusing on Recruitment and Streamlining Funding Processes

The Greater Rochester Afterschool & Summer Alliance (GRASA), an initiative of The Rochester Area Community Foundation (RACF), works to strengthen the quality, quantity, and accessibility of out-of-school time programs in Monroe County, New York for school-age youth. The NSLP laid the foundation for the ongoing collaboration and coordination between GRASA and RCSD. Since New York state does not have a designated funding stream for summer programming, funds are dependent on what local school districts and communities can make available each summer. This reality has brought RCSD, GRASA, local OST funders, parents, and youth together to address how to provide sustainable, consistent summer programming within the community that centers the needs and interests of children, youth, and families.

The Toolkit features several resources from the collaboration in Rochester that support program leaders in the critical weeks leading up to the launch of programs, sometimes called the “fourth season of recruitment.” The Rochester Summer Program Catalog opens with the “why” of summer learning and data points that illustrate the proven success of Rochester City School District (RCSD) programs, then launches into program logistics and offerings. Field trips, high-quality enrichment, and other rewards for participation appear to improve attendance rates, so showcasing those opportunities in marketing materials may be an effective “hook” for students and families.

Rochester Summer Program Catalog

Compelling marketing materials are essential to recruiting both students and staff to summer programs, and the Rochester Summer Staff Handbook provides an overview of the program’s operating policies, a plan for district-aligned approaches to behavior and expectations, and example strategies and resources to support staff and set them up for success. Over the last two years, summer program leaders and staff have shared that the unknowns of COVID contingency planning was the most stressful aspect of running summer programs, and one way to minimize this stress is to have a documented, clear plan that all staff members understand so that contingencies are limited to the unknowns that simply can’t be anticipated.

from the Rochester Summer Staff Handbook

The pandemic created an opportunity to re-think how summer programming could be delivered in Rochester. GRASA’s OST Funders’ Group piloted a simplified summer funding process staffed by GRASA team members who worked to coordinate funding decisions and maximize opportunities to distribute funds. Approximately $1 million in local foundation funds is being distributed this summer–in addition to the RCSD ESSER funds also being invested in summer programming.

The tools and resources in the Summer Learning Toolkit provide a framework for improvement that still informs the approach GRASA and RCSD take as they support capacity building for summer program staff, convene OST stakeholders to strengthen programs and expand access, and work to amplify the importance of high-quality learning to the school board and elected officials.

“The focus has been on learning loss and interventions to address this,” noted GRASA Director Chris Dandino, who also shared that there’s an expanding perspective among Rochester families as they grapple with COVID, racism and social injustice, economic insecurity and rising violence: safe and enriching learning environments that prioritize SEL are highly valued alongside academic gains.

The research, lessons, and insights that are synthesized into the Summer Learning Toolkit are foundational to the community relationships and systems that Boston Beyond and GRASA built to support their communities, and it helped them emerge from the pandemic with stronger programs and expanded access for young people in their cities.

Continuous Quality Improvement ensures that every summer is the best summer yet for kids attending summer learning programs.

In these first few days of June while kids are making new friends and lighting up with anticipation for a particularly exciting summer field trip, program leaders are likely discovering unanticipated challenges, or hindsight is showing them that a course of action they took might have been less than ideal. For these moments it’s great to remember that the Summer Learning Toolkit can support continuous quality improvement. The Summer Program Reflection Tool was created by Bellwether Education Partners to provide districts and cities with a semi-structured guide to reflect on a recently completed summer program and begin planning for the upcoming summer with a focus on continuous program improvement. It contains prompts for reflection (what went well, what could be improved) in a variety of categories related to program planning and management, instruction, and student outcomes.

Summer Program Reflection Tool

Leveraging the Summer Program Reflection Tool to document challenges and successes in real time provides accurate and rich input for post-program reflection that keeps programs evolving so that every summer is the best summer.

Additional Articles and Resources on Summer Learning:

In late 2019, The Wallace Foundation commissioned Education Development Center, Inc. to conduct a landscape study focused on how school districts ensure and improve the quality of their summer learning initiatives. A new report published last week, Supporting Quality in Summer Learning: How Districts Plan, Develop, and Implement Programs, shares findings that show summer learning programs to be a critical strategy for improving access and opportunity for students and families. While the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated the disparities and barriers faced by students from historically marginalized groups, it also offered districts and their partners the opportunity to adjust their approach to summer learning programming in ways that just may set the stage for advancing educational equity by removing barriers and improving students’ access to enriching learning opportunities. Additionally, the report includes high level implications and opportunities for future research.

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Every Hour Counts

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