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August 8, 2012

Summer learning

Thousands of JCPS students partake in the fight to stop vacation brain-drain

In the Woolridge household, the roughly 70 days between the last and first day of school doesn’t deflate into a seasonal pile of idle time. Every weekday morning, 11-year-old Donald wakes up, completes chores, eats lunch with his mom, and buckles down at his family’s computer to complete up to 40 minutes of reading and math lessons.

The soon-to-be sixth-grader is one of several thousand Jefferson County Public Schools students who have been participating in the district’s new online Every 1 Learns summer program. The goal is to prevent atrophy of academic skills in kindergarteners through eighth-graders.

For Donald, the motivation stems from his mother, Erica Woolridge, a JCPS special education teacher who witnesses learning loss every fall among her students. She says for kids who may cringe at the thought of summer learning, the online lessons blend grade-level studies with kid-friendly animation.

“They’re very interactive lessons. It’s colorful. Some parts stop and a video plays for them,” she says. “When you get something right, sometimes bells and whistles go off. It reminds me of playing a video game on the Xbox 360 or something.”

Two educational, web-based programs — SuccessMaker and Study Island — are offered through Every 1 Learns. Students need an ID and password to enter. Most lessons last around 20 minutes.

According to JCPS, about 30,000 students have enrolled in Every 1 Learns. But a large majority of those were already active users of the software prior to the summer. For years, the district has flagged struggling students and connected them with extra after-school help using the two online learning programs.

This year, JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens decided to expand access through the summer months. Also, starting in June, any parent who wanted their child to participate could sign up through a hotline. The district held a press conference and sent tens of thousands of postcards home to help spread the word. About 1,100 parents have called in seeking help for their children. We’re told one call even came from a resourceful middle-schooler who feared he had flunked seventh grade. Desperate to get to the eighth grade with his peers, he requested a spot in Every 1 Learns. He got one.

Rebecca Doyel helps oversee Every 1 Learns. She says of the 30,000 enrolled students, about half are active, meaning they’re logging on and finishing lessons three times a week. In the last few months, about 120,000 total lessons have been completed.

That’s in line with what Doyel expected for a first-time effort. After all, most of these students have teachers or aides ensuring participation during the school year. In the summer, it’s up to kids and their parents. Soon the district will send notes home congratulating active students. Other letters will also go out.

“Some kids are going to get a letter saying, you know, ‘You had a seat in this program. Where have you been? We’ve been missing you,’” she says.

Principals will receive scores and progress data from Every 1 Learns, Doyel says, helping them to gauge students’ skills at the start of the year.

In addition to online academics, Every 1 Learns also includes an enrichment piece. Kids earn credit for summer treks to educational facilities like the Louisville Zoo, Louisville Science Center or the Challenger Learning Center. Parents have been urged to scan a QR code with their smart phone to help the district keep tabs on participation. The district doesn’t have numbers yet, but Dana Shumate — who is charged with forging partnerships between businesses and JCPS and who also oversees the program — says they’ll use this summer’s data to make changes for next year.

“When we see this data, we might say, wow, there’s this whole section of kids in a ZIP code that we noticed that don’t get to come to the zoo,” she says. “And what does that mean for us and the zoo. Do we need to have a discounted day?”

The most vigorous Every 1 Learns students could earn tickets to a University of Louisville football game.

Back at the Woolridge house, these summer lessons are less about a prize and more about maintenance. Erica Woolridge says Donald struggles with attention deficit issues. The lively program keeps him focused. His interest in math and reading grows, she says.

“He says things that I’ve never heard him say before like, ‘I love math.”

As a teacher, Woolridge has called her students’ parents urging them to sign up for Every 1 Learns. If families don’t have home computers, she informs them of the many places they can go to partake in the program: Louisville Urban League, Canaan Community Center, YMCA, Louisville Central Community Center, and many more. She believes in future summers, even more of Jefferson County’s 100,000 students will take time out from summer break to brush up on academics.

“Things like this take a little time,” she says. “And most of it is educating our parents as to what’s available. Because I know a lot of times people think the struggling kid’s parent doesn’t care or the low-income parent doesn’t care. Actually they do. Sometimes there’s a lack of knowledge about what’s available.”