In the summer of 2019, children observed a caterpillar on an oak tree at Sibley State Park. This summer, more kids might be learning in parks. Walz's budget proposes school programming in neighborhoood parks, as well as field trips for students who have missed out on experiential in-person learning. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

This summer, Minnesota kids could practice their reading and math, make new friends, and get mental health support in their local park.

Reaching kids directly in their neighborhoods is one of the goals of summer programs Governor Tim Walz has proposed to help bridge the gap between a school year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the new year starting in fall — which, officials hope, will look a lot more conventional.

As part of his $23.6 billion two-year education budget, Walz has proposed $119 million for summer programming for this year. These programs go beyond traditional summer classes within school building walls. Neighborhood and community programs would bring school to where kids are, like an apartment building or local park. Child care would be available for kids who might be responsible for watching younger siblings. Mental health and socioemotional learning would receive special attention. Field trips would help engage kids who scarcely left their home for more than a year. Some funds would be allocated directly to districts, while others would be distributed to nonprofits and community organizations through a grant process.

State officials hope these programs will help catch kids up academically, provide the mental health support and social interaction many have been missing, reacclimate them to the school environment, and provide a bridge to the 2021-22 school year.

Everywhere they go, they know there are adults who care for them’

To make sure the budget proposal addressed education needs from communities throughout the state, the Minnesota Department of Education scheduled listening sessions with community groups.

Arif Bakar, executive director of the Oromo Resource Center of Minnesota, organized a Zoom community meeting to provide input. A teacher himself, he knows how every year students can fall behind in the summer and that it could be even more true than usual this year. He suggested that summer programming could come directly to community centers where families already have relationships.

“Having summer education in the community setting is beneficial to the family,” he said. It’s close and convenient for parents, and as a bonus, it helps kids see their education takes place throughout their whole community—not just in a school building or on a Zoom screen. 

“Everywhere they go, they know there are adults who care for them and also will hold them accountable for misbehaving or not doing work,” he said.

Walz proposed $5 million in grants to fund programs like these in his education budget. 

Heather Mueller, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, said moving summer programming into neighborhoods was an opportunity to reach different students.

“Historically, summer school has really been a school building-centric approach,” she said. “Students come into the school building, they get academic support. They may get social-emotional support. Then they go back to their homes and in their communities.”

But for some students, she said, that doesn’t work. Many students have responsibilities at home during the summer, like taking care of siblings. “We recognize that really ends up being a barrier for students,” she said.

Those students can’t always leave home to access summer school programs during the day. By reaching students in their apartment buildings or local parks, and providing food and childcare, they can make the programs more accessible.

“It gives us a chance to really engage students who may not have the opportunity to engage otherwise,” she said. And as a bonus, park programming can happen outside, a safer option with the COVID-19 protocols that will likely still be necessary.

Asma Mohammed, advocacy director of Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, mentors a group of Muslim girls at Como Park High School in St. Paul. She’s concerned that the summer slide, the term that refers to kids forgetting some of what they’ve learned before school starts in the fall, will be even worse this year.

“Because so much of it isn’t experiential learning, they’re already losing it the next day,” she said.

She’s particularly concerned about the first-generation students graduating from high school who don’t have the support they might otherwise get transitioning into college, she said. And her students are hungry for opportunities to socialize safely.

Walz’s budget addresses those concerns, too. It allocates funds for field trips and community partnerships so kids can visit nature centers and aquariums over the summer to engage with hands-on learning again. It also provides support for low-income high school graduates about to start college.

A bridge

In recent years, the Minnesota legislature has often passed the state budget just before its mid-May deadline. If that happens again this year, it could put a time squeeze on planning for summer programs for school districts, not to mention community organizations vying for grant funding.

For that reason, Mueller said, the Walz administration has asked the legislature to pass the summer budget early. “We know schools are planning right now for summer programming, so the earlier we have the opportunity to pass this legislation and budget the better off we are,” she said. But officials recognize that the budget process can take time, she said. “If it comes in May, it’s still really impactful for our students and families.”

The Walz administration’s hope, she said, is that these programs can help any student in the state who wants extra support in academics, social interaction, or mental health. That way, they can help meet needs that have gone unaddressed during distance learning in preparation for what educators hope will be a very different school year in September.

“We’re really hopeful that it is a bridge to fall in-person learning for every single student in the state,” she said.

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