NASHUA — More than 1,000 kids in Nashua attended summer school this year, where students produced videos, built catapults, made rock candy, visited local colleges and museums, and started a small business.
Teachers and administrators met with the Board of Education's Curriculum Committee this week and presented an overview of Nashua's summer school programs. And those programs look nothing like the vacation-busting summer schools that triggered a sense of fear and loathing in older generations.
Two summers ago, 782 kids went to summer school, and last year 889 kids attended programs. This year, enrollment jumped to 1,026 students, and the majority of those kids went because they wanted to be there.
Nashua's summer programs are targeted to different groups of kids such as English language learners, kids moving from elementary school to middle school and students from economically disadvantaged families.
"It's not one size fits all when it comes to summer school," Assistant Superintendent Karen Crebase told board members.
Still, the summer programs share an emphasis on hands-on learning, literacy and math skills, collaboration and problem solving. And all programs run for four weeks, so kids have plenty of summer left for themselves.
Scott Jaquith heads up the summer program for English language learners in grades 6 through 12. This year, 43 students completed the program, which uses projects and materials that focus on the experience of young immigrants in Nashua.
Last year, Jaquith published "Accepting the Challenge," an account of two Burundi families who settled in Nashua. The book was the theme for this summer's program.
"The students were extremely engaged because the content related to their lives," said Jaquith.
Teachers have long regretted the academic backsliding that takes place over the summer, and the English language learner program helps avoid any loss of language skills, especially for kids who do not speak English at home.
And it builds a sense of community among kids from different cultural backgrounds. This year, the students wrote to Mayor Donna Lozeau thanking her for the services the city provides to immigrant families and telling her about the problems kids still face.
The program, which is funded by a federal grant and the Nashua School District, is free and transportation is provided for eligible students.
Although administrators have been looking at mandatory summer school for kids whose basic skills are below their grade levels, teachers have been recruiting kids into summer programs.The new Excel summer school program for middle school students and the Kick Start program for incoming ninth-graders use career and technical training in fields such as culinary arts, woodworking, cosmetology and forensics to reinforce math skills and literacy.Teachers Ian Atwell, Phil DeRosa and Emily Dustin said kids are motivated to learn when they see relevant, real-life applications. This summer, 114 kids were enrolled in Excel and Kick Start, which are both free and funded by the school district.
Teachers start selecting students for both programs in February.
"We look for students who have high potential but aren't demonstrating that in the classroom," said Atwell. In addition to test scores and grades, a student's attendance and behavior is also considered.
Three years ago, Randy Calhoun launched the Summer Sizzler Science Academy, an enrichment program for Title 1 or economically disadvantaged students in grades 2 through 6 that uses science and engineering projects to bolster literacy, math and social skills.
Over three years, enrollment has jumped from 215 to 324 students.
"A lot of the growth has been word of mouth," said Calhoun, who oversees the curriculum built on engaging and fun activities that lure kids in.
The Science Academy is free to Title I students and open to other students for a fee of $320.
About halfway through the presentation on summer school, board member Robert Haas recalled what summer school meant when he was a kid.
"In the olden days, summer school was for students who failed," said Haas. "Does course failure come into any of this?"
Chebase said that students who failed in traditional classrooms settings aren't always likely to succeed in traditional summer schools that offer the same format, with warmer weather.
Still, about 80 students attended summer school to earn credits need for graduation.
For special needs students, summer school is an extended year program that is required by the state's Department of Education.
Teachers Kim DeGrappo and Susan Chmura explained that this summer students started Cars with Stars, a small car washing business.
"It was the most fabulous thing," said DeGrappo. "It was a start-up business."
Students worked together to develop a budget and business plan to hand wash and vacuum cars for $5. Along the way, they found solutions to problems and tweaked the business model to be more efficient. Next year, they are raising the price to $10, and hoping to pay each student for the work.
"They started the summer with nothing and earned $350," said DeGrappo. "And the skills they learned are skills they can take with them wherever they go."