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For struggling high school students, summer school can be one of the most undesirable consequences of goofing off—or just failing to grasp the required material. But what good does it do students to spend weeks of their vacation back in the classrooms that they desperately wanted to escape during the school year? Is it possible for summer school to be a positive force in their lives?

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These are questions that Colorado high school English teacher Michael Wenk set out to answer when he taught at an unusual type of summer school program. He wrote about his experience in The English Journal in 2005.

Wenk writes that his fellow teachers considered the district’s traditional summer school program a mess: “seat time for credits” rather than a chance for real learning. So they decided to start a summer academy, designed by the teachers, with a cap of 15 students per class.

Research backs up the value of smaller summer school classes, Wenk writes, citing a meta-analysis that suggests small programs are valuable because they let teachers tailor content to the students who are actually in front of them. In Wenk’s case, he had only nine students in class, making it easy to learn about them. Even before the class started, he interviewed the students and their parents, spoke with other teachers about the students, and looked at their grades and test scores.

Instead of going over the same material students hadn’t learned during the year (something he wouldn’t have had enough time to do in a comprehensive way anyway), Wenk took a different approach, focusing on skills rather than content. Doing things this way freed him to teach not just reading and writing but strategies to succeed in school and life. Along with the young adult classic A Separate Peace, the class read Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens, taking turns reading aloud and stopping to talk about the ideas and share personal experiences.

When the class wrapped up, Wenk helped students pick books to read over the rest of the summer and set reading goals.

Ultimately, one of the nine students didn’t meet the class requirements and another ended up suspended for smoking marijuana shortly after getting back to school in the fall. For others, though, the strategies for reading and for achieving life goals seemed to have stuck. One student earned As and Bs in English during the fall, and another raised her GPA from 1.6 the previous year to 3.2 as of the middle of the new year. Others said they continued to apply ideas they’d found in Seven Habits.

It would be unwise to draw too many definite conclusions from one nine-student class, but Wenk’s story contains some interesting ideas about reaching struggling students. It suggests the value of classes designed by teachers and customized to fit individual kids, lessons focused on skills that can be carried into the next school year, and a broad focus on life and school strategies.


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The English Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6 (Jul., 2005), pp. 42-48
National Council of Teachers of English