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Summer School Gets R.E.A.L.

B.C.’s School District 42 reinvents summer school

The Ken Spencer Award Winner

As an elementary school principal, Bruce Grady knew students in Grades 4, 5, 6 and 7 identified as academically at-risk by his School District 42 in Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows, B.C.

Later, as district principal with the same district and responsible for its summer school program, he saw the same students, now in Grades 8, 9 and 10, show up in July for the remedial instruction they required to return to class in the fall.

“There was no success for those students, who every year were being identified as at-risk,” he says.

In 2012, school district officials decided to break the cycle. They reinvented summer school, introducing inquiry-based learning and various strategies to reconnect students with school. First-year results were positive: high student attendance at summer school, improved academic performance in the fall semester and increased awareness by teachers of the value of bonding with students.

To set up the new program, the district recruited eight teachers from its six high schools to design and teach a 20-day summer program for Grade 8 and 9 students from across the district who had failed one or more core academic courses. Six teachers worked directly with “pods” of students, while another acted as counselor and field trip coordinator and the eighth oversaw 12 high school and post-secondary students hired as extra-curricular activity assistants and mentors.

Of the 149 participants, 23 had identified learning disabilities but were able to function independently.

Known as “Get R.E.A.L.” – for resilient, engaged, active learning – the project aimed to put the fun back in school and equip students with skills to give them staying power for their return to class in the fall.

On the first day, students took part in team-building exercises with each other and their teachers. Over the course of the three-week program, teachers took students on three field trips – one a rain-soaked canoe trip – designed to promote inquiry-based learning and build confidence.

By the second week, teachers heard an unexpected complaint: students wanted more time for their academic work. “It blew us away that they said, ‘We want to cut down on fun activities to do more work’,” says Math and Science teacher Tom Levesque. “The work they were doing was not typical of the work they had done all year. They were doing the curriculum in a different manner and they were buying into it.”

The core of the students’ studies was a project inspired by a National Geographic video on world population growth. Students were to explore what they would need to survive as members of a new civilization on another planet, an exercise that required they apply math and science, research and writing skills to learn about past civilizations and imagine those of the future.

There were no textbooks – a negative symbol of rote learning and past academic failure for some students.

Instead, armed with apps on iPads and laptops, students examined the survival theme from the perspective of their subject disciplines and kept a portfolio (print or digital) to document what they had learned, and reflect on their own progress. Discovery-based inquiry allowed students to pursue their own ideas about a post-Earth civilization while meeting the requirements of the provincial curriculum.

“We were working with kids so they could see that learning can be fun, not just rote work, reading, writing and textbooks, and that learning can be physical,” says Mr. Grady.

Every day, students selected from a menu of extra-curricular activities.

When teacher Trevor Takasaki noticed that a lot of students rode bicycles without functioning brakes, he set up a workshop on bike repairs. This informal setting helped him get to know the students as individuals as they acquired expertise of interest to them. “They learned to be more confident on a broad range of things,” says Takasaki, an English teacher in Maple Ridge for the past decade. “Doing sports activities, bicycle repair and cooking, they started to realize they could have success in the school environment.”

For 16-year-old Dusty Cooper, Get R.E.A.L was a stark contrast to his two previous summer school experiences, “where you just had work.” He enjoyed the extra-curricular activities and not having to make notes from a textbook. “It was pretty cool to get to work with electronic equipment other than a textbook,” says Dusty, who had never used an iPad.

At the summer school, adapted life-skills and behaviour support teacher Erin Talbot did not have Dusty as a student. But they still developed an informal relationship over the summer that carried over into the next school year, when she was one of his advisors at Thomas Haney Secondary School.

A Grade 10 student who previously skipped school, Dusty completed most of his assignments over the past academic year, says Talbot. “He has been really successful with his courses and has a wonderful rapport with all his teachers,” she adds. “Summer school gave him that opportunity to build resiliency and build that confidence in himself.”

A self-described shy student, Dusty went on all the field trips, including a challenging tree-climbing course that took him 60 feet up into the trees. “I am sort of afraid of heights,” he says. “I discovered I could push the limits a little bit.”

Ray Cooper, Dusty’s father, says he sees a big change in his son since his summer school experience. “He is happier and not anxious about going to school.”

The teachers made their own discoveries.

The absence of textbooks “forced me not to rely on the old normal,” says Tom Levesque. “I had to think of new ways I could get across the same concepts without saying, ‘turn to page whatever.’” No longer in the role of information disseminator, Levesque became a facilitator, helping students use their iPads and laptops to study the solar system, a unit in the Science course. “I had so much more one-on-one contact with students,” he says.

Trevor Takasaki says teaching summer school was “a huge boost for all of us teachers, myself included, in the excitement we have in teaching.” He says the experience reinforced his belief in engaging with students to help them succeed. “It has definitely pushed us to recognize the need for the same sort of relationships [during the school year],” he says.

In 2012, a district analysis found that 137 of 145 students (four opted out) earned one or more course credits, a higher ratio than for traditional summer school. In the fall 2012 semester, 57 percent of summer school students now in either Grade 9 or 10 were doing well enough not to need further remedial help.

In summer 2013, the school district expanded the program to include 17 students from Grade 7 and 81 from Grade 10, along with 139 from Grades 8 and 9.

“It says to me that some of our kids are re-engaged,” says Grady. “They have the potential and the intelligence and the tools to be successful.”

Photo: Sue Beyer

First published in Education Canada, November 2013


EN BREF – En 2012, un conseil scolaire de la Colombie-Britannique a réinventé les cours d’été des élèves en 8e et en 9e année, offrant des activités en classe et parascolaires pour rehausser leur résilience à titre d’apprenants actifs engagés. Le programme « Get R.E.A.L. » du School District 42 à Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows a utilisé l’apprentissage par investigation et d’autres stratégies afin que les élèves renouent avec l’école. Au lieu de cahiers d’exercices, les élèves se sont servis d’iPads et d’ordinateurs portables pour effectuer leurs recherches et bâtir un portefeuille de réalisations au cours du programme de trois semaines.

Les résultats de la première année ont été positifs : taux de fréquentation élevé des cours d’été, résultats scolaires améliorés au semestre d’automne et sensibilisation accrue des enseignants à la valeur de l’établissement de liens avec les élèves. 

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