BETHANY — Monday night in a church classroom, OKC artist and poet Gregory II had a group of fifth through seventh graders repeat words of affirmation: “I am worthy, I am loved.”
The group was gathered for a Poetry & Chill Kids workshop — an offshoot of the nonprofit organization Poetry & Chill, which Gregory II founded in 2017 to help bring a more vibrant poetry scene to Oklahoma City.
“Our goal is to provide a safe zone for the students,” Gregory II said, “(and) to improve their reading, writing, communication and public speaking skills, to have a place for them to be themselves in a judgement free zone and to have fun while they’re learning.”
Poetry & Chill Kids has been offering after-school and in-school programs since 2018. Now, as demand for summer learning options balloons following the disruptions of the pandemic school year, Poetry & Chill has become a summer enrichment option for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Monday night’s workshop included students from Casady School, Putnam City Schools and OKCPS. The organization will also be working with other programs, such as the University of Central Oklahoma’s GEAR UP, to reach a wider audience of public school students this summer.
“I want to be in every school in the state,” Gregory II said. “It’s been a blessing.”
In May, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister announced a pandemic recovery effort from the State Department of Education, Ready Together Oklahoma, aimed at supporting students throughout the pandemic and beyond, with summer learning at the forefront of the plan. The OSDE will invest $14 million in summer learning opportunities for school districts through 2023.
“Oklahoma families can have confidence that districts and community organizations are planning for a summer like no other,” Hofmeister said at a May press conference. “Summer can still be about fun and family, but our focus must be on unfinished learning, getting kids back on track academically and supporting our young people who have weathered the social-emotional stresses and traumas associated with this past year.”
School districts throughout the state are holding expanded summer learning programs for students in order to address potential learning loss caused by the pandemic and to curb the “summer learning slide.”
“Bridging those gaps and connecting them just to the content is going to be very important,” said Tracy Skinner, OKCPS’ assistant superintendent of academics. “We always talk about the ‘summer learning slide,’ so we’re trying to address that and really do some targeted interventions with those kids to ensure we’re closing some of those gaps. We have six weeks with them, so we’re going to try our hardest to see what we can get done.”
‘Sometimes school is their safe zone’
OKCPS began its 2020 school year on Aug. 31 with students in distance learning. The district transitioned students back into a traditional classroom setting on A/B schedules throughout the year, and now OKCPS is offering a variety of summer learning options to provide students with socialization opportunities and to prepare them academically for the coming school year.
“Oklahoma City Public Schools will team up with our community partners to offer exciting in-person learning ‘camps’ centering around STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), fine arts, outdoor/healthy living, community service and so much more,” OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel said. “We’ll also be providing much-needed transportation and offering meals at each of our summer sites.”
Skinner said OKCPS will offer four types of summer learning opportunities this year: enrichment, enhancement, athletics and community opportunities. She said 4,000 OKCPS students have signed up for the district’s “enhancement option,” which operates like traditional summer school and will focus on learning loss.
“We’re working on not making it a ‘drill and kill,'” Skinner said. “So we’re really going a different way for our programming and making it engaging and based on students’ interests, especially regarding literature and (English language arts).”
The district is also offering an asynchronous enrichment option called Jump into Canvas that allows students to complete online English and math modules from home, at their own pace throughout the summer. High school students will have a credit recovery option this summer, and the athletic department will offer strength and conditioning camps for fifth through 11th grades as well.
The in-person STEAM enrichment option, which programs like Poetry & Chill fall under, will be offered to fifth through 12th grade students.
“We’re partnering with Oklahoma City Ballet, and they’re bringing in some dancers. We’re partnering with Engage Learning, and they’re doing some physics and engineering practices with our kids,” Skinner said. “Everything for our summer learning (is) focused on keeping kids engaged with adults.”
An OKC native whose full name is Gregory McPherson, Gregory II said Poetry & Chill connects students with literacy, reading and writing through exercises completed the old-school way: paper and pencil only.
At Monday’s Poetry & Chill Kids workshop, he asked students questions — such as how they’re feeling this summer — and to name two things they do well. Students wrote their answers in their journals, and although they did not have to share them, they did have to write.
Along with improving writing and public speaking skills, Gregory II said he hopes Poetry & Chill will also help students connect with one another after a difficult year, particularly for students with a hard home life.
“We always talk about us as adults, but these kids had it the worst,” Gregory II said. “Sometimes school is their safe zone. For them to have to stay at home, we can just imagine what they had to go through mentally. We’re trying our best to show that we’re here consistently.”
Although it’s the first time Poetry & Chill has held summer sessions, Gregory II said the timing couldn’t be better and that he is expecting a full house for every workshop.
“Sometimes kids say they don’t like to write or they don’t like to read because they’re not reading or writing things that they’re interested in. We are really trying to show them that even if they love comic books, that’s reading,” Gregory II said. “Nobody got a summer last summer, so we want to make sure we’re doing the best we can.”
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‘It’s enriching what they’ve done the entire year’
Because of the disruptions of the pandemic, and thanks to funds from the Ready Together initiative, school districts are significantly expanding their summer learning options or finding other ways to enhance their offerings.
For instance, this marks the first year Lawton Public Schools will hold summer school for elementary and middle school students.
“We typically do not have summer school for elementary or for middle school, so that is completely different for us this year,” Lawton Public Schools communications director Lynn Cordes said. “We usually just have credit recovery for our high school. But this year, because of the funding we’ve received, we’re able to do all grade levels and provide them summer opportunities for two sessions.”
Cordes said the district will hold summer learning sessions for kindergarten through 12th grade students in June and July. Middle school students will be offered courses in reading, math, STEAM, creative writing, technology and current events.
“Our elementary is going to focus on the reading and socialization as well as a lot of hands-on projects, just to get them back in the groove of school or things they may have missed out on if they were in a virtual program this year,” Cordes said.
Jerry Burch serves as deputy superintendent of Woodward Public Schools and said his district already operates a summer learning program with grant money through the OSDE 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. Woodward will use some of the Ready Together initiative funds this summer for one-to-one technology enhancements.
“We’re going to use a big chunk of that money to refresh our Chromebooks and iPads come this fall,” Burch said. “Every child in our district has a device, from pre-K to seniors.”
The district’s Summer EXSTREAM program will provide hands-on science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math opportunities to kindergarten through sixth grade students with remediation and credit-recovery opportunities available to middle and high school students.
Burch said his district has been holding classes in-person since the beginning of the school year, with the exception of one day before winter break, and hopes the summer learning programs will help keep students on track.
“It’s enriching what they’ve done the entire year,” Burch said. “Some kids, this place is the best place for them. If you take two months off in the summer, you have regress. By continuing school year round, it helps those kids stay on board or maybe even get ahead a little bit.”