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Summer of Discovery: Rochester Public Schools dives into second year of summer school overhaul

“Now that we’ve been through it a year, we’re continuously improving it,” said Amy Eich, executive director of community education for RPS.

Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Dylan Lohmann, 14, left, and Gunnar Jones, 15, right, use binoculars to spot birds while bird watching during a science class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, near Mayo High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — It may have been a warm June morning, but that didn’t stop a group of high school students from going on a short field trip rather than sleeping in at home. They left Mayo High School, crossed the bridge into Bear Creek Park, and followed the bike path until they arrived at a wooded bend in the river.

They were trying to identify birds. It was an easy enough process in some cases, like when the family of Canada geese went floating by. Other times, a student would pull out their cell phone, open an app and record the bird calls coming from nearby.

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Someone referred to the process as nature’s version of Pokemon Go, a popular online game where players have to catch animated characters in different locations.

Some students lifted binoculars to their eyes, hoping for a better look at the birds making the unique sounds. And for a moment in the process, or maybe even two, the chatter among the group died down to a near silence as everyone took in their surroundings.

“When’s the last time you were with people this quiet without phones,” the teacher Jason Schneider asked the students.

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The class was just one of many across the district taking part in its summer school program. But this isn’t your parents’ summer school. Or, that’s the goal, anyway, among those driving the effort to reconceptualize summer learning in Rochester Public Schools.

The School District is in year two of a three-year redesign of its summer school program, dubbed “Summer of Discovery.” Funded in part by COVID relief dollars, the redesign runs the gamut, from elementary school to students on the verge of graduation.

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“Now that we’ve been through it a year, we’re continuously improving it,” said Amy Eich, executive director of community education for RPS.

This year, RPS received an additional $1.8 million for the summer program, on top of the federal COVID funds it initially used to launch the redesign. Eich said that should help provide another year of programming.

In 2021, the first year of the new program, there were more than 2,300 students who participated in this new version of summer school. The program runs for six weeks, three in June and three in July. That’s twice the length of the district’s former summer school.

Even with the additional funding, the district was not able to open the summer school program to the entire student body. Instead, the district sent out invitations to specific families the district felt would benefit from it.

In a normal year, there are roughly 1,000 students enrolled in RPS’ K-8 summer school, and roughly 450 students enrolled in high school academic recovery. However, the district oversees a slew of programs that run through the summer, including summer school child care, RPS extended school year, and community education youth enrichment.

As part of the redesign, there’s several core features the district is weaving into the summer school program: embedded experts in the fields of mental health support, special education and language development, identity affirming culture, and small class sizes.

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The four essential learning areas identified include academics, experiences, interpersonal skills and wellness.

Linda Rud, the program coordinator at Elton Hills Elementary, spoke about what some of the mental health supports look like in practical terms. She said there was one student who would refuse to come in the building, and instead would just scream. The mental health worker, Rud said, was able to work with that student and calm them down and get to a point where they could enter the building with the rest of the students. The mental health worker then began routinely meeting the student at the door to help the student’s day start off well.

For some students, summer school will still be about credit recovery – about making up what they weren’t able to finish in the regular school year. But even for those students, the program looks a little different.

Eich said that for students pursuing credit recovery, they have something called “choice boards,” which were developed by local teachers.

“They offer kids a choice of activities they could do to get at those learning goals so that the students have some autonomy in what they’re pursuing. It’s still based on the state standards and helps to fill those gaps, but it’s not as teacher-directed as it used to be where every kid goes through every single minute identical to the kid next to them,” Eich said. “That’s kind of an innovative way to do credit recovery compared to the old way of coming in and spending four hours listening to your teacher.”

Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Mumtaz Rooble, 11, left, and Lucy Evans, 12, work in a garden as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, outside John Adams Middle School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Another component of Summer of Discovery is the program called Experience Learning. Funded with help from a grant, the point of that program is to tie academic concepts to real world experiences.

One group of students learned how to apply math and science concepts to baseball in the classroom. The whiteboard at the front of the room had a rough drawing of a baseball diamond on it, surrounded by a smattering of numbers and fractions.

“This batter gets on base 45% of the time,” the teacher told students. “If this was our player, I’d be very happy as a coach.”

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That series of classes culminated with a field trip to a Minnesota Twins game.

As important as academics may be, the staff knows some students just need a little extra push to even get outside — hence that being one of the core learning areas. That was also part of the reason one of the classes went out to the river to identify birds.

“There’s this whole idea known as nature deficit disorder where kids are just stuck inside all the time,” he said.

One of the students, Marina Ingvaldson, spoke about the benefits of learning in a more immersive environment.

Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Matthias Gabrielson, 13, folds a paper airplane during a class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, at John Adams Middle School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“It’s a lot more out-of-the-class experience, and I definitely like that more. It’s more hands-on,” Ingvaldson said. “It sticks to you a lot more, and you have more frames of reference.”

Younger students get plenty of hands-on learning as well. A group of students helped establish a garden outside John Adams Middle School. Some students put up a fence around the perimeter. Other students plucked weeds.

Like some of the older students, the younger students willingly got out of the classroom for more immersive activities.

“It’s really nice,” said 10-year-old Eliza Anderson. “It’s technically learning, but it’s still not like sitting at a desk.”

062822-SUMMER-OF-DISCOVERY-MIDDLE-SCHOOL.gif
Kim Finley, 12, tests out a paper airplane during a class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, at John Adams Middle School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

John Adams Middle School science teacher Donna Brunskill said the garden is a partnership with the Village Agricultural Co-op.

“We’ll have four different families out here – four different world cultures. And they will mentor our kids in gardening practices and whatever their native produce is,” Brunskill said. “My hope is they see they’ve built this fence and that they’re part of permanent improvements at JA, and that they feel a part of our community here.”

For those students in between middle school and high school, there is a new summer program called BRIDGE. A joint partnership between RPS and the nonprofit Cradle 2 Career, it’s meant to prepare eighth-graders for the transition to high school.

Claudia Tabini with Cradle 2 Career said helping students transition into high school will hopefully reduce the number of students with difficulties down the road. They work with the students, but they also work with the parents, if need be.

Summer of Discovery
Rochester Police Officer Jim Ratelle helps elementary student Rosemary Townsend during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Even though BRIDGE starts in the summer, it will extend into the school year, helping students as they navigate their freshman year.

“It is huge,” Tahini said about the transition from middle school to high school. “The social environment changes. … Suddenly, they’re treated like grown ups. Their grades count. They’re looking at their future. They have to learn how to really advocate for themselves.”

Summer of Discovery has changed things for the younger students, as well. On a recent Thursday, the students at Elton Hills Elementary were navigating a bike course set up on the pavement. According to Rud, some of the students were learning how to ride a bike for the first time.

In addition to the bike course on the school grounds, officers from the Rochester Police Department came by to take groups of students for a ride around the neighborhood.

Summer of Discovery
Nicole Nyaboke who just finished third grade learns bike road signals with JoAnn Judge during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Rud said some of the benefits to the district’s summer school problem aren’t necessarily in the way they do things, but in the funding available.

More funding allows them to do things like go on more field trips. More funding also translates into smaller class sizes.

Rud described how in previous years, she would be tasked with taking care of her class while also trying to manage the front desk of the school. Jumping between two tasks like that is no longer something she worries about.

“This is tremendous,” she said. “You can focus on the kids.”

Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Students walk along a bike path while out bird watching during a science class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, near Mayo High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Science teacher Rob Schmidt, center, talks with students while out bird watching during class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, near Mayo High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Students bird watch along Bear Creek during a science class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, near Mayo High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Jameson Bryhn who just finished third grade takes part in a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Dustin Morrow helps Ridwan Abdallahi ride a bike during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Elementary students take part in a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Jordan Ortega Lopez tries out a trike alongside Sgt. Greg Jeardeau, Rochester Police Department, during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Eddy Mariano who just finished first grade takes part in a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Rochester Police Officers Jim Marsolek and Jim Ratelle speak to elementary students during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Elementary students Luke Dewitz and Grayson Boettcher take part in a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
JoAnne Judge demonstrates bike hand signals to elementary students during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Rochester Police Officer Jim Marsolek helps elementary student Elhan Elmi ride a bike during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Rochester Patrol Officer Jim Marsolek leads a group of elementary students on a ride during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Summer of Discovery
Elementary student Grayson Boettcher rides a scooter during a bike safety event as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Noah Sheggeby, 13, works on building a fence around a community garden as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, outside John Adams Middle School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Noah Sheggeby, 13, and Grace Lemaster, 11, work on building a fence around a community garden as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, outside John Adams Middle School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Eliam Alomassor, 11, tests out a paper airplane during a class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, at John Adams Middle School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Matthias Gabrielson, 13, folds a paper airplane during a class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, at John Adams Middle School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Summer of Discovery
Anade Omot, 12, left, and Kyrie Vercnocke, 14, test out their paper airplanes during a class as part of Rochester Public Schools' Summer of Discovery on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, at John Adams Middle School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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