Nias Jaa, 12, demonstrated a robot he programmed at summer school in Minneapolis' Northeast Middle School. He spent all of sixth grade learning remotely, so summer school was his first opportunity to get to know his middle school building. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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“Freedom School!”

Excited shrieks filled the gym as hundreds of children at Hazel Park Preparatory Academy leapt to their feet.

“I said, Freedom School!” their teacher called out again.

The cheers echoing off the tiled green walls sounded more like the beginning of a sports event or a concert than the last Tuesday at summer school. 

Hip-hop music began blasting from speakers. Sparkling silver shoes and light-up sneakers glittered the gym floor. Students pumped their fists in the air, watching staff to imitate their dance moves. This shared routine has by now become a daily part of their summer activities: At Freedom School, this assembly is called “Harambee”—the Swahili word for “all pull together.”

“It’s Tuesday!” they shouted in rhythm. “At Harambee! And Freedom School’s in the house!”

Staff and students start the morning assembly, called Harambee. Credit: Chris Juhn | Sahan Journal

After more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, enrollment has fallen somewhat in summer school programs at St. Paul Public Schools compared to pre-pandemic numbers. In 2019, 16,000 students took summer classes; this year, it’s closer to 14,500. 

But energy is high—and palpable. For many students—not to mention staff—the opportunity to develop relationships, practice routines, go on field trips, and learn in school buildings marks a welcome change from the isolation and computer screens of distance learning. Educators hope the summer programming—boosted with funds Governor Tim Walz allocated from the American Rescue Plan—will ease the transition into a more standard school year in the fall.

Adam Kunz, who leads digital and alternative education programming for St. Paul Public Schools, recalled watching Governor Walz’s pandemic updates. “He kept saying, I can’t wait for a moment during the pandemic when we see a hallway full of kids laughing and clapping and I can give them all high fives,” Kunz said. “We’re doing that across the city. And Harambee is maybe the best example of that kind of learning.”

Making new friends at Freedom School was important for many kids after a year of distance learning and isolation. Credit: Chris Juhn | Sahan Journal

For kids in elementary and middle school, the summer programs are voluntary, free, and open to all. Some kids attend because they want to get out of the house; some come because their parents made them; some heard from a friend that it was fun. Popular programs like Freedom School often have long waiting lists. This year, with some families still wary of the COVID-19 pandemic, most students who wanted to enroll in the program received a slot.

The Freedom School model, a national program of the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, grows out of the civil rights movement’s Freedom Summer. The reading curriculum features books about African American role models. As St. Paul’s program has become more diverse, attracting Black, Hmong, Karen, Latino, Native American and white families, staff members have added books showcasing role models from more cultures. On Tuesday, Sahan Journal observed classes reading books about polar explorer Matthew Henson; astronaut Mae Jemison; young Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba; and Vice President Kamala Harris.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, students–called scholars–gain on average eight months of reading skills during the six-week program; 84 percent of scholars avoid the learning loss. The “summer slide”—that is, the idea that students forget some of their learning over the summer—has long been a concern in education. This year, after 15 months of educational disruption caused by COVID-19, experts worry that students learned less than usual, and that gaps between students of color and white students may have grown even wider.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, the benefits of summer programming go beyond academics. After at least a year of distance learning, it’s a chance for students to brush up on social skills and school routines, get out of the house and off the computer, and enjoy in-person experiences that weren’t possible during the pandemic.

Students imitate each other’s dance moves during the morning Harambee gathering. Credit: Chris Juhn | Sahan Journal

The Freedom School program has taken advantage of Governor Walz’s summer learning funding to send kids on field trips: to Twins games, swimming pools, and the amusement park Valleyfair. 

“Being able to have that enhancement that field trips provide, the broadening of the horizons, discovering new talents and skills, was something that was absolutely amazing,” said Rev. Dr. Darcel Hill, who leads the Freedom Schools program for the St. Paul district.

Aniya Harris, 14, came back to Freedom School this year for her third summer. She appreciates the meaning of Harambee: coming together. She’s also enjoyed the field trips, like going swimming at a pool with a slide. “Seeing friends again feels good,” she said.

For Earth Forestal-Ortiz, 10, the most memorable day of Freedom School was his first day. “That’s when I made my friends,” he said.

Hill can feel the students’ joy from her office across from the Hazel Park gym. “When I hear my children laughing and playing with each other, it blessed my heart because I knew that they were having a good time,” she said. “They were learning how to make new friends.”

Robots, skateboards, bikes, and friendship

Tara McClom, 12, explained how she constructed the layers of her skateboard. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Fourteen miles away, summer school students in Minneapolis Public Schools were enjoying their science and engineering programming so much they almost didn’t realize they were learning. In the skateboard science class at Minneapolis’ Northeast Middle School, students in a first-floor shop classroom sanded and painted the skateboards they’d made over the course of the program.

Upstairs, 12-year-old Nias Jaa programmed his robot with a bit of trickery. While the robot looked like it was going backward, he said, it was actually going forward, which could fool people.

“Just to bamboozle them,” he explained.

Middle school enrollment in the STEM-based programs reached a little more than half its pre-pandemic levels this summer, said Anne Lewerenz. Lewerenz serves as Minneapolis Public Schools’ district program facilitator for GEMS and GISE programs. Those acronyms stand for Girls in Engineering, Math, and Science, and Guys In Science and Engineering. There’s also a third science-based track, which is mixed-gender.

Overall, district data show, enrollment for summer programs declined in Minneapolis Public Schools from about 5,000 students in 2019 to 4,000 this summer. But it varied by grade level. Nearly a quarter more high school students enrolled in programs aimed at making up credits. But for kindergarten through 7th grade, summer enrollment fell by about 30 percent.

The reduced enrollment meant the students who did attend were able to build closer relationships with staff and students, even as they had fewer kids to play with, Lewerenz said.

Though some students described the summer curriculum as easier than their school-year studies, Lewerenz said in some ways it is actually more rigorous.

“You don’t have to be the A student in math to be able to do some of the things that we’re asking kids to do here,” she said. “But there’s a direct application of math and science in everything we’re doing.”

Richard Johnson, 13, showed the plants his environmental education class had planted. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Despite the increased field trip funding from Walz, the Minneapolis GEMS and GISE programs decided not to schedule any bus field trips this year, Lewerenz said. The funding allocation in May came too late; staff had to make program decisions months in advance.

But Northeast Middle School has its own pool, so younger students have been going swimming. And several older students told Sahan Journal that biking to local parks and splash pads ranked as their favorite part of the summer programming.

Deangelo Hammond, an assistant coach—the program’s term for teacher—has led the biking program for seven years. Some kids join the program who don’t know how to ride a bike at all, he said. By the end, they can ride safely and confidently on city streets and bike trails.

“Kids love it, they really do,” he said. “Who doesn’t love being outside in the summer in Minnesota?”

The hands-on activities have made a refreshing change of pace for many students weary of distance learning, and helped them mentally prepare for a new in-person school year.

Richard Johnson, a 13-year-old sporting a SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt, enjoyed learning about plants and storm drains in his environmental education class. An early morning thunderstorm Wednesday left him wondering how the rainfall would drain.

Richard felt a little sad to see the program come to an end, but he’s looking forward to next school year. In eighth grade, he hopes to improve his algebra skills, he said. He remembers excelling at algebra in fifth grade. But he spent all of seventh grade in distance learning, even as some students started to return to school buildings. It was harder to improve his math skills while learning remotely, he said.

Tara McClom, 12, who will be starting 7th grade, struggled with distance learning, too. She didn’t like dealing with constant computer glitches, and she missed engaging in hands-on activities. 

But she broke into a broad smile describing the fun she had building a skateboard.

“It’s a new start,” she said.

Want to sign your kid up for next summer?

It’s a little early to enroll for 2022, but you can check these websites for more information in the winter and spring. For St. Paul Public Schools, visit https://www.spps.org/summer. You can see programming for Minneapolis Public Schools at https://summerschool.mpls.k12.mn.us/.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.