How Should School Districts Spend Their Summer?

The Case for Investing Pandemic Relief Funds in Pre-K and Kindergarten Summer Programs

By Meghan McCormick, Amena Sengal

This commentary was originally posted in the New America Early and Elementary Update.

K-12 school districts across the country are currently faced with a good problem: an unprecedented infusion of federal funding that needs to be spent quickly provided via the pandemic relief package. Districts must use at least 20 percent of this funding to address student “learning loss” through out-of-school time programming, like summer learning.

As districts sprint to design their summer programs, they would be wise to target investments beyond the group of older elementary and middle school students for whom we have data on learning loss and include young children transitioning into and currently enrolled in kindergarten. Last year, districts across the country reported significant drops in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment, particularly among children of color and children from families with lower incomes. As the country emerges from the pandemic, ensuring that the youngest students also have the opportunity to access high-quality summer programs is critical for supporting equitable learning and development in the longer term.

Our research conducted before the pandemic found that pre-K and kindergarten students continue to make gains in language and math skills during the summer even when they are not enrolled in a formal school-based program. However, implementing high-quality programs that are fun, engaging, and relevant to children’s interests and experiences in the summer before kindergarten can further improve their academic, social, and emotional skills, and help them navigate the transition to elementary school. This may be particularly true for children who do not have the opportunity to attend a formal pre-K program.

For example, since 2010, Georgia has offered the academically oriented 6-week Summer Transition Program (STP) to rising kindergarten students from families with lower-incomes who did not attend the Georgia state pre-K program or Head Start during the previous academic year. The program prioritizes the type of small group learning shown to be beneficial for young children by capping class sizes at 12 students with one lead and one assistant teacher. There’s also a Transition Coach who works to engage participating families and support a successful shift to kindergarten. Research has shown that students in the program make significant gains in language and literacy skills prior to the start of kindergarten.

For summer 2021, Georgia has decided to expand eligibility for STP by both suspending the income requirement and by making the program accessible to rising kindergarteners who attended a pre-K program that used a fully remote or hybrid model during this school year. Like last summer, Transition Coaches will continue to provide virtual services to families in order to maintain safe social distancing.

Other states and districts should also consider prioritizing summer programming for young students who missed the opportunity to receive in-person learning this year. Academic skills in kindergarten are highly predictive of outcomes through third grade and beyond. Boosting young children’s skills through investments in summer learning this year may be more important than ever before because of the significant disruptions in early care and education most children have experienced.

Importantly, access to high-quality summer learning programs for rising and graduating kindergarteners was inequitable before the pandemic and, in the absence of intervention, stands to be even more so this summer. Our research has found that Black and Hispanic students and students from households with low incomes are less likely than their white and higher-income peers to enroll in any formal summer learning program between pre-K and kindergarten. In addition, students who are white and from higher-income families make faster gains in academic skills during the summer compared to their peers.

Districts should make summer learning programs for young children more accessible to families by reducing traditional barriers to enrollment and attendance. For example, parents may forgo publicly-supported summer learning opportunities for their children because programs are not located in families’ neighborhoods, there are limited transportation options, or there is a lack of clear enrollment information, including a long list of eligibility criteria that are burdensome to prove.

Some districts have improved access by holding summer programs in existing school buildings and in partner agencies in the community, making them more geographically accessible. For example, the Pittsburgh Public School District plans to expand summer programming and access to transportation for kindergarten through 11th-grade students this year. The district will build on the success of prior years and make programs enticing by providing a mix of academically oriented instruction and a broad set of fun and engaging enrichment activities such as coding, dance, theater, drumming, and kayaking.

School districts’ increased involvement in summer learning, supported by pandemic relief funds, may help families access transportation. When implemented by school districts, the STP program in Georgia typically offers busing to students, helping overcome a key barrier to participation for many families.

Targeted investments in outreach and recruitment are also important to ensuring that investments in summer learning for young children are allocated equitably. Most districts will not have centralized information on students who have yet to formally enroll in district-run pre-K or elementary school and will not be able to contact them via mailings or emails. Conducting community-based outreach and partnering with local organizations working with young children and families can help districts reach these students.

For example, the Pittsburgh Public School District is actively partnering with local organizations to host summer learning in the neighborhoods where families live. District staff are working with teachers and school administrators to get the word out to families, in addition to posting announcements to a parent website and promoting summer programming through social media.

If states and districts allocate some pandemic relief dollars to strengthening summer learning for pre-k and kindergarten students, then young children may have a smoother transition to and thrive in elementary school after a year of educational upheaval.

Thank you to Susan Adams and Meghan McNail from the Georgia State Department of Early Care and Learning and Melanie Claxton from the Pittsburgh Public School District for contributing to this blog.