RAND Corp. Enrolls in Dallas ISD's Summer Schools As Part of $50-Mil Best Practices Study

Yesterday, some 8,500 Dallas Independent School District elementary students reported to 17 campuses, from Bryan and Caillet to Truett and Winnetka, to begin summer school. Pardon: Make that summer camp. At least, that's how district officials and DISD's educational partners sell the idea to kids who'll spend summer vacation learning.

And some of those kids, those entering fourth grade in the fall, will have visitors amongst them: Researchers from the RAND Corporation, who will spend this summer and several after that studying Dallas' summer schools as part of a six-district study, which includes Boston and Pittsburgh, being funded by a $50-million grant from the Wallace Foundation, which was announced this morning. RAND Corp. researchers will spend the next three summers tracking "cumulative academic progress, summer learning loss, behavior and transitions into middle school."

DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander and Susan Underwood, director of marketing at Big Thought, say they only found out about the grant two weeks ago; Underwood tells Unfair Park "it just came out of the blue" right before kids left for the summer break. And, she says, Dallas will receive $300,000 for the study this summer; $2 million, or more, is being set aside for the next three summers as RAND Corp. fleshes out its study Making Summer Count, which was published last month.

"They're using the summer to assess the needs," Underwood says. "RAND has sent people into all six sites as part of the study to begin looking at what we're doing. They're not interjecting. They're just watching over the summer. They're trying to find out about all these different summer learning programs -- to see what's working and what's not, to see what needs are being met and what needs to go away. It's about finding best practices and saying, as a group, this particular strand doesn't seem to be working anywhere, so let's drop that. And at the end of the day, four years down the road, we should have a clear picture of what it takes to knock that summer learning loss out of the ballpark."

Right now, Big Thought, which brings arts and cultural programs into the district year-round, is in charge of four of DISD's summer schools; the district runs the rest.

RAND Corp. will have someone on all of them, Underwood says. And, she says, there are some 8,500 enrolled -- though those numbers may rise and fall as summer schools get underway.

Most summer schools, of course, consist of kids who had trouble during the school year. But others, say Underwood and Dahlander, are kids "looking for summer enrichment" -- which is to say, kids whose parents don't want to see them return to school in the fall having lost their education somewhere at the bottom of a swimming pool.

"They're doing so many different kinds of things, from art and science to music and math," Dahlander says.

"Kids can pick and choose what they're doing, so it's more like a summer camp," Underwood says. "They take academic courses in the morning, then use studio or what we call 'exploration time' in the afternoon. They take academic instruction and work through it using art or science or sports in a creative, fun way. We know there's a learning loss during the summer; we know this happens. So what we're trying to do is provide the experience and evidence on how schools can end the summer learning loss. This is about extending and amplifying summer to make a difference, so kids don't show up having lost two, three months' worth of learning over the summer."

"We're measuring what we have," Dahlander says, "and what we're doing..."

"...and taking what's working here in Dallas and making that part of a bigger study, which is exciting," Underwood interjects. "At the end of four years we should have a good profile of what a good summer enrichment program looks like. What we're doing is creative. It doesn't feel like school. The level of excitement of kids on these campuses is extraordinary."

"We've had this agrarian model of school years forever," Dahlander says, "and now somebody's taking notice and saying, 'Maybe there's something districts are already doing that works.' We're fortunate to have Big Thought working with us. Some other communities have other organizations working with them, so long-term this helps us figure out how to help the kids we're serving. It's good for all of us."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky