Originally published Aug. 3, 2021 in the New Haven Register.
By Linda Conner Lambeck
Four weeks into a six-week elementary summer school program, there were still new arrivals to John B. Sliney School.
“We had 10 more join us this morning,” said Jody Mongillo, a co-director of the program that takes place at Sliney school.
Mask-clad students streamed past from the three-story, brick school building to a sun-drenched playground cooled by a steady breeze.
Inside, a mixture of art, physical activity and STEM exercises were underway.
“It’s been very successful,” said Sean Kennedy, the other co-director. “One of big goals here was to build community in a positive way. To show Branford is all on the same team.”
It is not that the district’s three elementary schools had not joined forces before for summer school. It’s that summer school traditionally is a fraction of its current size.
This year, instead of 100 students there are about 250 students in the elementary program and about as many in the middle program, which is taking place at Branford High School.
No one in the district is being turned away, organizers said.
Funded by federal COVID relief dollars, the goals are simple: have fun, experience continuous learning and enter the 2021-22 school year with increased confidence that they can be successful.
“This is a real shift for the district,” said Rachel Sexton, the district’s assistant superintendent of schools.
Summer school typically is focused on students who need to catch up academically. This year, it is about getting back into the rhythm of a cohesive learning community.
For most of the pandemic-ravaged 2020-21 school year, students attending school did so on a hybrid schedule, attending school in person a couple of days per week. Not until April were most students back in the classroom five days per week.
Some students attending Branford’s summer program spent all of the last school year learning remotely.
“This is about creating bonds,” said Sexton.
Research shows summer school normally doesn’t change academic status. It may prevent “summer slide,” but it is better at helping to build relationships and re-energize participants.
The popularity of the Branford program forced the district to hire additional staff. Most are Branford teachers and paraprofessionals.
The 8:35 to 11:30 a.m. program includes breakfast and lunch. Students start with a morning meeting that Sliney Principal Maria Clark said includes a social-emotional activity.
Then, depending on what students have signed up for, it’s a morning of fitness and literacy, art and literacy or STEM, which is short for science, technology, engineering and math.
The Olympics also edged its way into programming.
“I stood out here the other day at dismissal and students were streaming out of the building with sports machines they had built or medals they had made,” said Kennedy. “Every kid did something having to do with the Olympics.”
That goes for the intermediate schools’ Summer Spectacular, as well, according to program Director Alicia Loesche.
Students there, she said, have looked into the history of certain sports and athletes, Title IX requirements and have explored music and food from around the globe.
At Sliney, on the first day of the last two-week session, there was plenty of outdoor time, with socially-distanced mask breaks on the grass. Some kids tossed a football.
Inside, first-graders were investigating how planes work. Paper rockets had been built.
The fitness group was creating “how-to” books for different exercises. The art group was learning how to illustrate stories and emulate the work of author and illustrator Eric Carle.
In a STEM class led by teacher Ashley Steele, incoming third- and fourth-graders were introduced to coding concepts on a touch-screen smart board by making a character called Scratch Cat move.
“Right now he’s not doing anything,” Steele, a teacher at Murphy School during the school year, told the students.
“We can tell him what to do, how to look, get him to talk or make sounds by pressing the buttons on the left,” she said before demonstrating. “We want to get him to do something interesting.”