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Episode 41:Menus for Summer—Expanding Social Emotional and Academic Learning

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.

Preview of Episode

Person: When it comes to a school district, when it comes to a summer setting, you want that menu to be big because you want something for everyone.


Ken: Hi. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Dr. Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform where we highlight resources the Department has to offer, as well as the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for students across New Jersey. Thank you so much for joining us.

In this episode I'm having conversations with guests about summer learning, both social-emotional as well as academic. We're going to be diving into topics related to summer programming, as well as some other things related to planning during the summer that are important to be thinking about, both as teachers and administrators.

Before we start, I'd like to remind you about our #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat, which will be taking place this month on June 22, 20222 at 8:30 p.m. Please make sure you add it to your calendars.

And I hope you enjoy this episode. We'll start off with an interview with my colleague, Cory Radisch, from the New Jersey Department of Education. And then jump into a conversation with two of my colleagues from Lighthouse School Districts, Weehawken and Hoboken.

Interview 1: Cory Radisch, New Jersey Department of Education

Cory: Well, hello there, Ken. Thanks for having me on. My name is Cory Radisch. I am currently the Acting Director of the Office of Learning Intervention and Support at the New Jersey Department of Education, in the Division of Field Support and Service. I'm currently talking to you from Mercer County at Trenton, at DOE headquarters, and excited to join you today.

Ken: Awesome. Thanks so much Cory. Really excited to be here and really thankful for your joining me. It's been a blast getting to know you here as you've worked at the Department for a little bit and entered this new role as well. So I'm excited to think with you about this really important topic of learning in the summer, both from an academic perspective and then a social emotional perspective as well.

So just tell me a little bit about why the DOE...why does this work appeal to you? And especially, with this new office, what is it about this that makes you excited?

Cory: Yeah. It's a great question. You know, anybody who's been a practitioner in the field has had their interaction with the DOE, most of it positive. But sometimes, you know, there's some other thoughts when you're a building principal. But once you're on the inside of this operation, and you see the amount of passionate, compassionate, student-centered folks, a lot who have come from the field and those who don't have an educational background that just want to do great things for kids, it was just very appealing for me coming from a district.

My original role as a continuous improvement specialist, when I read the job description it's everything I've attempted—sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully—in buildings that I've had the privilege to lead. And I thought, "what an opportunity to be able to impact 1.4 million students and be a part of the process of potential change in how we implement different strategies and the way that we may look at education."

So, you know, the last three and a half years have been an incredible blast. And now, moving into this new role, again the impact is what really drives you. The fact that the things that you can create, the discussions you're having, the potential to lead to policy or regulations or even just practices, is incredibly exciting. Because you know that it goes from the top of New Jersey all the way to the bottom.

Ken: That's awesome. And it's been so truly enlightening to be able to hear from you about all the practices that you've been able to gather when it comes to summer learning and extended learning, that have been able to really, really glean from the field the research, what's happening that's working, and then really broadcasting and amplifying that out to others.

Just, so just tell me a little bit about the buckets that you've been looking at when it comes to successful programs. What types of things should folks be concentrating on?

Cory: Yeah. I'm glad you asked that one as well. And—just so that the listeners understand—we're talking about non-mandated summer programming. So obviously we have ESY (extended school year), and that's mandated programs. But I also want to be sure that we mention [that] the non-mandated summer programming shouldn't exclude our students who are in ESY.

I think what we want to see when we talk about high-quality summer programming, number one, we want to be able to have increased opportunities and experiences for kids. Summer is a time—and so is the 10-month school year—but summer is time to really kind of open the world to our students.

And I'll give you an example. We just had a technical assistance webinar—Long Branch in Monmouth County, they are doing some acceleration work with content. And then the students have opportunities for enrichment experiences. Some of those students are going to learn how to play golf. Some of those students are going to learn how to fish. Some of those students are going to learn how to swim for the first time. Even though they're a shore town, some of their students don't have access to a pool and don't go to the beach. So now they're going to learn to swim. So when we can open up the world to our students, we really talk about increasing access and opportunity, which is one of the, you know, two of the hallmarks of equity. Right?

So the other thing that we really want to see is, we're not just having a program for programs' sake, we want to be able to measure some outcomes for our students and see what the impact of that summer learning looks like and sounds like.

I'll give you another quick example. East Windsor brought in a[n] outside vendor, Written Out Loud, and they had kids do team writing. And then the district looked at the data of those students who attended their summer programming and looked at the data in September, and then other assessments, and the benchmarking all the way through. And they saw a significant increase between those kids who attended in the summer and those who didn't. So not only is it enriching opportunity, it's an opportunity to accelerate students to get them closer to where, you know, we expect them to be, and hopefully even beyond.

Ken: I love hearing about the way that folks are approaching the enrichment of students' already rich cultures and backgrounds and home life, and really bringing them even more and helping expand their horizons for all the different possibilities that are out there, both academically and socially, with sports and different activities. That's so neat to hear.

So connecting students to educators and to their school communities is just so important for social-emotional learning. And that can really help students succeed during the school year and throughout their school careers, as they as they make those connections and feel connected to their schools. So I think a big piece of that—at least in my experience— is fun. Right? Our students, do they come into school, do they have fun? So, you know, what excites you about students having fun in summer school? And how can how can educators think about that?

Cory: I love that you asked that because it's one of my favorite things to talk about. And we read a lot of policy and regulations, right? I don't think I've ever seen the word "fun" in any of those regulations. But you're right. I think summer, because the mindset of summer is a time off, a time away. It's a break to recharge. And they should be...we need to validate that. But we need to create opportunities for kids that are engaging and are making them kick down the door to come in. Right? If we're just going to kind of do, you know, sit in rows and do some of the same things. And I kind of make this little joke that, you know, if we're just going to teach it faster and louder, that's not the way to accelerate learning and provide those opportunities.

But I think, you know, when you talk about that social-emotional piece as well. And creating that fun. What happens when a kid is having fun, they feel like they belong, right? And especially if they're a part of that process, there's a sense of belonging and a connection that takes place, that maybe in the previous 10 months was not there. And so for those six weeks, four weeks, two weeks, whatever program, you're trying in your district, if you can get a kid to start feeling like they belong and they're connected, you have a really good shot in the next 10 months of them not being absent as often, maybe not having some behavioral issues, and maybe even transferring their view of learning into, you know, what "I actually enjoy this."

And the other thing that we would like to see happen is—I think it's because it's a mindset that's out there, like I said. Right? Traditional is remediation, credit recovery. But if we can maybe even use summer to pilot these innovative, fun, engaging lessons that meet standards and skills, can we then take that and transfer it into our 10 month school year and into our classrooms for the entire year and really create something that is special for kids all year long?

Ken: That's a great word. I love the idea of…kind of leveraging summer as almost an experimentation lab. Right? This is our time to experiment as teachers and let those experiments inform the school year—the rest of the school year. And really making that connection, and also making sure that the fun things we're doing in the summer—that fun doesn't stop. Right?

And again, it's just  away for us to kind of launchpad students into an amazing school year full of fun and full of pedagogy and education that really ramps up those practices that will engage students and make them excited about school.

So that's awesome. Great.

Anything else that you're hoping that I would ask about, or that you're hoping that we could talk about, that we didn't get to today?

Cory: No. Not really. I think, you know, you just made a great point about bringing [it] into the 10-month year and even looking at our summer learning, and can we create them even as extended learning opportunities for our non-traditional hours during the 10-month year?

You know, there's a lot of opportunity again with the emergency relief funding to kind of set up your systems. And a lot of the conversations that are had in a lot of spaces is sustainability. Right? So the emergency funds are going to expire in 2024, I believe. So when we talk about sustainability, it's not only "do I have the money to do it?" but "can you build the infrastructure, the systems, with this money?" With some coaching. Maybe you could bring outside people in to kind of show you how it's done. And then, when, the money's gone, the system is in place. And the people who are there—the experts who are there—can then carry it out.

And as you come to the end of your summer learning and your summer programs, the reflective piece is a really important piece. And that's really what's going to drive what happens in the coming summer. And, as always, always keeping your teachers a part of that process. Hearing their voice and empowering them to help figure out what's going to stay, what's going to go. You know, what barriers did they face and how can administration support them? And how can this office support them if need be?

[end of first interview]

Transition to Interview 2

Ken: I love the way that Cory focuses in on both the big and small details. He looks at the systems level perspective, and then focuses on those small changes and tweaks that can make a program successful and that can engage students even more.

As you listen to my next interview, think about that every same theme. And think about the way that the educators in this conversation, from Weehawken and Hoboken, both focus in on all of the pieces, looking both at the big picture. What are the big programs? What are the things that we're doing to succeed? And then those small touches, like calling a parent in their native language at home as a school or district leader. And the difference that that can make as well.

Interview 2: Lighthouse Districts—Hoboken and Weehawken

Sandra: Okay. I'll go first. I'm Sandra Rodriguez-Gomez. I am your Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Hoboken Public Schools. And I live in Essex County.

Eric: Eric Crespo, Superintendent of Schools, Weehawken Township School District, which presides in Hudson County. I currently live in Bergen County, so, you know, I get a little flavor of both.

Ken: Awesome. When it comes to schools in the summer, and promoting social-emotional and academic learning, what's special for you about school in the summer?

Eric: So this is Eric. [laughing] And so, I remember when I was young, going to summer programming, and I remember sweating because of the heat. I remember it was really boring, the type of content—sorry to my past schools, when I was young, but it was—and now things have changed in so many ways. For example, in our district, we offer 11 plus programs, each one embedding social-emotional learning in it. So we have ,you know, your ELA (English Language Arts), your math, but we your STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics), your STEM, your arts and crafts. We have a college essay writing bootcamp for our rising juniors to seniors. We partnered with college consultants.

So I think it's really important…you know, a lot of times I'll go to restaurants and I hate when the menu is too big. But when it comes to a school district, when it comes to summer setting, you want that menu to be big because you want something for everyone.

Ken: Great.

Sandra: This is Sandra. In our opinion, summer programming, it has many prongs. The first prong would be our summer tasks that capture ELA and mathematics. And crafting those in partnership with some curriculum supervisors that I'm lucky enough to oversee. And ensuring that the quality of what we're asking children to do it both relevant and rigorous.

This year, we're really proud of the fact that we've layered on something else, that's, like, student choice. An example of that is there is a a book that they're going to be reading, every grade level, rising one through rising seniors, our twelfth graders. And we wanted to make every task specific to a relationship to self, and self and others. And so we wanted to have that overarching theme in everything that we're asking children to do in the summer.

In addition to that, and in the space of equity and access, we are making available books to students who may need them in a loaning relationship. We have PDFs (portable document format) for children that might want to...might not be able to access the book and can access it electronically. We have read alouds for children who might be audio learners. For those students that are interested in, like, movie trailers, we've taken that and applied that to a book trailer space. And so that package that's going out is doing a lot of things, right? It's absolutely ensuring that we're not missing anyone and everyone's able to access it.

What we're also seeing—and I'm sure Superintendent Crespo is seeing some of that—is that parents are kind of tired of screen time. And so everything that we're asking children to do electronically or on some digital platform, we're also providing in paper-pencil so that they're able to check off that box if that is a box that relates to them. So from the perspective of what children will be doing while at home, that's kind of where we are.

And then our summer programs do a lot of what Weehawken is doing, in terms of innovative programming, all wrapped around "Move this World," which is our social-emotional curriculum. And it lives in the lower elementary, upper elementary, and are certainly our middle school space.

And so we wanted to make sure that we were doing a couple of things, filling tools and toolboxes. Right? Ensuring that we're limiting the level of frustration for families during the summer. That we're accessible while children and families are managing it. And that we're playing paying really close attention to how children and families are presenting to us.

So those are some of the major, major elements of our summer approach.

Eric: And I think, you know like Hoboken is doing, Weehawken is doing….we look for voice. We look for choice.

And then obviously, with some of the content that Mrs. Gomez shared and I shared. And we look for fun. Because we want students to be engaged be interested. You know, the best learning is when they don't even know they're learning because they're having such a good time doing it? Right?

Sandra: Mmmm. [murmuring in agreement]. Absolutely.

Ken: I hear so many connections to when I was working in schools as a teacher. And I think that that idea of choice and voice—like you said Eric—and really making those connections to all of the interests—Sandra, like you said—of students, so that they're able to really dig in in ways that relate to who they are as people, who they are as learners, and be able to  maybe approach things a little bit differently than they would during the school year, I think is so great. And I'm really excited to hear about how things go this summer for all of you in your districts.

Sandra: I want to jump in again—Sandra again.

This always happens when I talk to Weehawken. I'm probably gonna steal an idea. Like I love their, I love your idea.

Eric: It's never stealing. It's collaborating.

Sandra: [laughing] I love your idea of the summer institute for the college essay. And, you know, we put a lot of work into ensuring that students are ready from an independent space. But I think we can be better. And in providing them with, like, on-site guidance to ensure that they're e meeting all of the demands of that really intensive moment for them, for their future.

Eric: And, so listen, I'm a procrastinator. So I feel for them. A lot of them wait last minute, wait last minute, wait last minute. So we thought in our head, I'm like, "if that's some one of the most stressful parts of senior year, let's take ownership of that. Let's help them with the heavy lifting."

And, you know, when we looked at things and did studies, we said, "wow, a lot of the early admissions students, etc., really have done well in their acceptances. So why not, let's put them on that path. And then they decide where they want to go from there?" But that's a really special program for us, part of our triple F program "fueling futures forever." And we're excited about it. But never stealing, collaborating always.

Sandra: [laughing]

Eric: [laughing]

Ken: And this is what Lighthouse—both of you are in Lighthouse districts—Lighthouse Districts are all about, right? Learning. And that was one of the areas, Eric, that your district was recognized for was equity and post-secondary enrollment. So, so excited to see some of that learning and collaboration happening here. That's great.

So as you approach the end of the school year, how do you think about gearing up mentally, as a school community, for all the important work that takes place in the summer? I know that for me, as a teacher, I'd get to the end of the school year. I would have worked really, really, hard. And, you know, sometimes it was extra work to close up things. And then I got to re-energize and think about summer school. You know, teaching the English language learners I worked with. And it got me so excited.

And I think that that kind of re-energizing is really important for staff as you make that mind shift from "alright, we're closing something" to "alright, we're beginning something. We're opening something."

So how do you conceptualize that? How do you think about that? How do you encourage your staff when it comes to gearing up for the summer?

Sandra: In the summer programming space, from teachers was born the idea of a reading academy to be able to take all data that matters in literacy and create really tailored instruction led by teachers. The idea was theirs. They informed it and they're leading the work. And so I think in the reading academy space, that's where we really see evidence of collaboration, collegiality, of, you know, what we've heard and then what we did with it. It didn't just land somewhere in someone's file and we're not doing something with it. So, you know, we had really nice activities over the weekend. And we had a lot of teachers in attendance. And they were so excited about this package. I haven't even released it yet. And, you know, I've been saying, "you're gonna see your stuff. You're gonna feel your energy in this document." And so, fingers crossed, they see that. But we wanted to honor that voice.

Ken: I love that. So really giving teachers, giving educators agency for your summer programming. And letting that really fuel their passion for the work that they're about to enter into in the summer. That's great. That's great.

Eric, how about with you and Weehawken? How have you approached this?

Eric: Summer is always a time where you have some reflection. You're making some plans for the future. So actually, it's funny. So I have a—you know, it's not fancy—it's called summer work list. And you'd laugh because it actually starts in September. So one time I told somebody that, they were like "what do you mean? You could have done that last summer?"

So, for example, I was reading an article one day in October. And it said how in the next five to ten years there will be a shortage of pilots. So right away, that kind of got my wheels spinning. And [I] said, "all right. I think we need an aviation program." So we planned all year for an aviation program. And this summer is where things kind of crescendo. Where we kind of put the finishing touches on it. Where we want students to leave with some kind of certification, some kind of hours going forward.

We were looking at financial literacy, you know. Is a financial literacy curriculum looking at cryptocurrency? So a lot of times I'll be reading what's going on in the economy, what's going on in the world, how's that changed.

Somewhere after January, February, March, we ended up with a 30 percent increase in our English language learner population. So those are things that we need to we need to plan for in the [immediate]. And sometimes, you know, [immediate] for the last two months, it's a band-aid. But full-scale approach to it come summer, where we plan for those things.

So, I mean, from the top it's looking at the future. Looking at what students need and how we're going to get them there.

Specifically, let's say for summer programming when we talk to the teacher, we talk to, you know, what has worked well and what hasn't. It actually helped us develop some of the summer programs. For example, we wanted to make sure we had a reading specialist on staff. That's something that came from a request from the teacher said, "hey, I think we need to look at this area a little bit more, our speech therapy." So instead of one speech therapist, we're gonna have two speech therapists at summer program. Then again, talking to teachers—because we talk about student choice and voice—teachers need choice and voice, too. And the more successful and excited they are about what they're doing, the more successful the students will be. And it'll trickle down.

So we survey the teachers. Find out what materials they'll need. Find out what professional learning they will need. So, for example, if somebody, you know, for the first time had you know co-teaching and they said, "you know, I think I could do more, but, you know, I need a coach to help me in the coach's teaching realm to know how to really integrate that." We make sure we make that happen.

So professional learning is always been something in my heart. I really believe in it. So we also have a teacher academy in the summer. And how do we create those courses for the teacher academy in the summer? They tell us what they need. We don't tell them. So that teacher voice is really important. And that kind of springs them off to the fall. And then then we start creating it all over again and start creating new lists and seeing what we need.

Ken: Love it. Love it. That's great. That's great.

So, as Lighthouse Districts, your school communities have been recognized for increasing educational equity. And both of your school communities have just done an amazing job with that. And I'm so, so thankful to have your districts and the many other districts and charters that that are just great examples to other folks around the state. So when it comes to the summer, it can really allow for students and staff to explore new formats, new context, and just different angles and approaches for learning.

Sandra: I'm just really proud of the connection with Weehawken, because they are partners in our work from a pedagogy and practice space, but also from the equity world. Right? And I know that when we say "all," we mean all.

And I also know that the lessons learned, and the innovations that were forced upon us during the early days of the pandemic, we've elevated those. And because we have, we have made a statement to our community that puts our money where our mouth is. [laughing] Right?

We're no longer just talking about niceties around getting all families what they need. You know, there really wasn't an operationalized approach to that in years prior. We were really proud of the work that we had done. And now that is the expectation. It's no longer the hope. Right?

And, you know, when we think about access to all of these really exciting things, there has to be a bridge toward them. Right? And so in my….initially, when I was sharing about the summer tasks, I'm always driven by, "how can we make this even more accessible?" I'm never really satisfied with a product until I am confident that every parent and every kiddo will have the opportunity to access everything that we're doing.

So I tell all administrators you're never too busy to take a call. Each of us are leaders. And no one is more of a leader than the other. And so that's one thing that Dr. Johnson {Superintendent of Hoboken Schools} and I espouse. And we are never too high on the leadership totem pole to connect with a family that will need us. And so, you know, I think that's a statement.

You know, I can remember as a child going to school in Newark. I'm a Newark public school kiddo. And I went to Roberto Clemente and I didn't speak English. Right? And I can remember that my father was just really adamant about advocacy. And I was just so impressed by that. You know, he's..I forget I'll start crying if I talk about him. But, you know, that impressed me. And it gave me this armor to continue that work.

And, you know, I was a kid in a kindergarten classroom with a peer mentor who later on went on to become the principal of the very school where we met. I mean, it's crazy, right? [laughing]

And so like those anecdotes that drive both my career—and I'm sure Eric's—that's fodder for positive relationship building. Right? We're a partner with you in getting there.

Ken: I love that. I love that. And I love that idea of really how that communication really needs to start from the top. Right? And it needs to be something that carries through the entire school system, about getting folks involved, especially when it comes to students who may speak languages that are different than their principals, their teachers, at home. And then also, really reaching out. Making sure the full community knows what's happening, so that they can take full advantage, and it's not just a select few who are given opportunities and access to programs. So that's great.


Eric: For our AP [advanced placement] classes, we have open enrollment. Right? So anybody that has that passion, anybody that has that interest, anybody thinks [that] they could succeed and they want to have that attempt, they can.

But for summer programming, what we did was we did some pre-AP classes to help them. So once September starts, no one feels like they're behind. They can they can kind of accelerate. Like we talked about academic acceleration, we keep that mindset.

We had an increase in our language learner's population. Just because they can't speak the language doesn't mean that they shouldn't be in summer program. So we invested in these little earbuds that can translate into any language for these students. So we had a few students that were coming from…you know, war-torn Ukraine. So we wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable. They just went through a traumatic experience and we want to be able to embrace them in any way possible.

So summer programming equity is really, again, having open access to everyone, regardless of language, regardless of disability, regardless of interests. Right? So that's why we like to offer so many different things. We want to find something that's there for everyone.

[end of interview 2]


Ken: Thank you so much for listening to this episode. I'd like to thank you, listeners, for joining us month after month to check out the topics that we discuss. I'd like to thank Elizabeth Thomas for making this accessible for all through transcriptions. And I'd like to thank my guests for making this episode possible and for their deep insights on this topic.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple podcast app or wherever else you listen to podcast, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education nor its officers, employees, or agents specifically endorse recommend or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

NJDOE Programs Mentioned in Episode

Lighthouse Award: Launched in 2017, the Lighthouse Award recognizes school districts and charter schools in New Jersey for illuminating the path toward educational improvement and equitable outcomes. Lighthouse districts are listed on the Lighthouse Awardees webpage.

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