Celebrating over a decade of summer learning and student success
“Do I have to go home already?”
That plaintive question, asked between child and parent and overheard by a teacher in the then-nascent Summer Learning Program (or Summer Literacy Learning Project, as it was initially called), later became the title of one of the earliest annual reports issued by CODE, the program’s originator and organizer.
For the teacher that day, hearing “Do I have to go home already” represented one of her greatest summer learning successes. It symbolized everything that she, and everyone involved in the program during the years that followed, had hoped for “SLP” students: enjoyment and feeling connected while confidently achieving new knowledge and skills.
First introduced in 2010, the CODE Summer Learning Program (with support and funding from the Ministry of Education) has evolved from a handful of school boards taking part in what was essentially a research-based exercise (designed to study and document the effects of a summer literacy program on student summer learning loss and the reading levels of identified primary students) to what it is today: a respected and established province-wide program recognized by boards as integral to student success and school improvement planning.
2010 – 2013: The Early Years
Both the 2010 and 2011 SLP annual reports identified two significant outcomes from summer learning that have since been repeated year after year: Students involved in the program did minimize their loss of literacy skills over the summer (and, in some cases, saw increases); and, an engaging and well-planned summer program builds reading self-confidence in students while helping connect parents to school programs.
The latter finding regarding parental involvement was examined much more extensively in 2012, with that year’s research component demonstrating the benefits of assisting parents to become actively engaged in their child’s learning, including increased support for public education.
Another mainstay of summer learning – the numeracy component – was piloted in six boards during the summer of 2012, with initial results showing that students participating in the test programs gained numeracy skills and confidence in the area of numeration and number sense.
The 2012 program also saw the introduction of a summer literacy class specifically designed to support First Nations, Métis, or Inuit students. Although challenges in terms of attendance and parent engagement were identified in this first year of the FNMI program, there were many examples of collaboration and cooperation with local Aboriginal organizations and Centres that led to a more exciting and culturally-rewarding invitational summer program.
2014 – 2018: Growth and New Learning Opportunities for all Stakeholders
With summer learning becoming well established by 2014 (over 5200 Kindergarten to Grade 3 students from sixty four district school boards across the province participated that year), CODE produced the Summer Learning Program Planning Guide to share proven ideas, strategies and successes with both existing programs and newly joined boards starting up their own SLPs.
Meanwhile, the 2014 SLP continued to focus on helping elementary students reduce summer learning loss and improve their literacy and numeracy skills over the three-week program.
That same year, it was announced that summer learning would return in 2015 with an increase in the number of classes offered. This vote of confidence was partially based on results from the ongoing research component, which indicated that not only was there a reduction in learning loss for students participating in the SLP, but also evidence of gains made as well.
To help connect summer programs around the province with resources and inspiring SLP success stories, CODE launched ontariosummerlearning.org, a robust online home to both current summer learning news and a detailed history of summer learning in Ontario (an increasingly popular feature on the site is a curated page of colourful Twitter highlights from SLPs around the province).
By 2017, there was “no doubt that the SLP is firmly established, positively received, makes a difference, and is an expectation of parents, students and teachers alike,” said that year’s annual report, Expanding Opportunities for Summer Learning Students and Parents.
Also established by this point were expectations of summer learning community partnerships (for guest speakers or field trips to libraries, fire halls, etc.), full engagement with parents (classroom visits by parents became a feature around this time), and sharing the benefits of summer learning and the successes of individual students with receiving September teachers and principals.
Emerging just slightly outside of summer learning’s spotlight on student success were additional benefits such as teacher professional development – many boards extended their summer learning program day so teachers could work collaboratively at the end of the SLP instructional period – and instruction in robotics (which offered yet another enhancement in the form of student robotics mentors from secondary school or college/university who provided support for students, teachers, and parents alike).
2019 – 2022 Challenges and Changes
The 2019 edition of the Summer Learning Program faced challenges that ultimately proved the resiliency and effectiveness of SLPs in Ontario.
Overwhelmingly, school board staff around the province reported that late confirmation and reduced funding for Summer Learning 2019 resulted in staffing, location, and permit issues. These same factors also impacted the purchase of classroom materials, connecting with parents for student registrations, and general planning and organization of the programs. Many of these challenges were overcome through the dedication and commitment of the SLP organizers and planners.
For 2019, over 7000 students and 500 teachers participated in Summer Learning Programs. Although the late confirmation of that year’s program impacted communications with parents and school boards, only seven boards decided not to offer SLPs.
In terms of significant challenges to the program, however, nothing compared to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic during the following two years.
For the first time since the CODE Summer Learning Programs began, the 2020 program was offered only through online learning. Exhibiting tremendous resourcefulness, boards embraced this challenge with creativity, commitment to student learning, flexibility, and the willingness to modify programs as needed. Backed by CODE’s leadership and experience in implementing summer learning, boards readily pivoted to a new type of learning within tight timelines to meet the needs of their communities.
In an unexpected upside, more students participated during 2020 than in any other year’s program, providing greater student opportunities and equity of access to summer learning. In addition, 71 of 72 District School Boards implemented summer programs that year. More students than ever participated, with almost 12,000 Elementary pupils benefitting from the 2020 program. There were clear reasons for this larger enrolment: boards offered more classes and reached more students partly due to an increase in Ministry funding. And in a few cases, boards used their own funds to increase the number of classes, and there were fewer related expenses that summer (e.g., no transportation, excursion, or nutrition/ lunch costs).
The following year (2021) presented similar challenges, with most programs delivered in a virtual format (although some boards did offer in-person learning opportunities). Boards maximized their funding to reach more students than in past years by hiring more teachers and effectively stretching salary dollars through the use of online programs.
It was noted that, despite this impressive pivot to digital learning, the in-person summer learning camp experience (blending instruction with the engaging and interactive social and physical activities which are an essential part of summer programs) was not offered by most boards. Its absence drastically affected the nature of the SLPs, moving them from an interactive camp setting to a more subject and skill-development focus.
Boards were asked to organize classes for Grade 7 and 8 students to support their entry to the new Grade 9 de-streamed Mathematics program. At the same time, less Ministry funding (than in pre-pandemic 2019) meant that boards were limited in their ability to offer classes for Indigenous students and English Language Learners (“ELL”).
As Ontario began to transition out of COVID-19 restrictions in 2022, many SLP sites reinstated in-person classroom learning. To gauge the impact of this return to summer learning’s traditional setting, students, teachers, parents, and other participants in the 2022 SLP were asked to share their individual experiences and successes from that year.
Parents spoke about learning more strategies to support their child in literacy and numeracy and indicated relief at being provided with quick methods to, as one parent put it, “be able to sneak in the learning.” Many parents did not feel as overwhelmed in helping their children and were ready to commit to daily learning support.
Much of the feedback from teachers focused on the positive impact of in-person instruction and planning, professional development (SLP teachers noted that their summer learning experience informed new and engaging practices in their September home school classes), and meaningful interactions with parents. One teacher noted that the 2022 SLP helped “reignite” her passion for teaching. In addition, teachers took advantage of face-to-face opportunities to share successes and strategies with their summer learning colleagues both before and during the programs.
For their part, supervisory officers reflected on a more holistic view of summer learning, especially its capacity to create “learning communities” of children from different schools. SOs and board program leads spoke of settings conducive to student collaboration and parent engagement, high-impact strategies, and meaningful community partnerships.
2023 and Beyond
Note: The 2023 SLP marks the end of CODE’s leadership and responsibility for Summer Learning Programs in Ontario. For 2024, in a noteworthy indication of its continued commitment to summer learning for the province’s students, the Ministry of Education will provide funding for Summer Learning Programs directly to school boards.
With summer learning now firmly established in Ontario, 2023 represents an opportunity to both look forward to new successes and to celebrate a remarkable journey of helping young learners keep pace with their peers, acquire new skills, and develop more self-confidence heading into the September school year.
Over these past years, the CODE Summer Learning Program has demonstrated how the commitment and dedication of system leaders, board/regional leads, principals, teachers, parents and communities can result in outstanding successes by providing a wide range of learning opportunities and meaningful activities for students from families that may face economic and social challenges, and who would benefit from additional support.