K-5 Summer Learning in Woonsocket, RI

Executive Summary

As districts work to reduce disparities and address inequities in educational outcomes and experiences, many have turned to voluntary academic summer programming as a key strategy. Research shows that quality programs  programs matter for students. They build connections. They offer new experiences and new ways of engaging with teachers. They provide a safe place to go during the summer.

When it comes to academic gains, however, the research is mixed. Summer programming can improve students’ long-term test scores, but these gains tend to occur in programs that adhere to a key set of design principles outlined in EdResearch for Recovery’s Advancing Student Learning and Opportunity through Voluntary Academic Summer Learning Programs.

District staff face difficult trade-offs as they balance their local needs against the eight design principles described in the research brief. Limitations around district capacity and personnel as well as families’ demands for summer flexibility can directly conflict with calls for greater academic rigor or longer program length. While research should always be used to guide decision-making, it needs to be evaluated in relation to specific values. Brighouse et. al (2018) argue that the process of using evidence to make effective decisions requires value judgments in evaluating the evidence and in determining which evidence is most important. Further, implementing processes for collecting data is critical to understanding program effectiveness and informing subsequent decisions on program improvement.

This case study details how one district – Woonsocket, Rhode Island – chose to navigate these trade-offs and the ways this has played out in program design. In examining Woonsocket’s programmatic choices, three foundational values emerge. These values guided decision-making and helped the district build a strong program that aims to balance research recommendations, program goals, and local priorities. 

  1. Empowering site-based leadership: District leaders in Woonsocket knew that in order for the program to be successful, personnel at the school level needed to be actively engaged in the planning and creation of the program. Teacher autonomy and teacher agency are positively related to teachers’ motivation and engagement in teaching. The district gave site-based planning teams the autonomy and built-in time needed to create project-based lessons aligned with school year standards and student interests. Complementary perspectives and knowledge from teachers, staff, and principals ensured that the summer program was aligned with the goals and needs of schools and of their students. This site-based leadership model generated high levels of teacher buy-in and engagement throughout the program. This value is most evident in their decisions around the research-based design principles of Administration and Academic Curriculum.
  1. Prioritizing program personnel: From the outset, Woonsocket made a conscious effort to prioritize the knowledge and skills of teachers and ensured positive experiences for personnel. To recruit high quality teachers and support personnel, the district implemented a series of explicit strategies designed to value and support teachers. They increased compensation, allowed for flexible work schedules, created built-in planning time, hired supporting staff and interventionists, and partnered with CBOs to provide afternoon enrichment activities. This value is most evident in their decisions around the research-based design principles of Personnel and Enrichment Activities and Instructors.
  1. Designing for student personalization: Traditionally, Woonsocket’s summer program was for a small, targeted group of students in a single four or five week program. Woonsocket decided to redesign their program and open it up to all K-5 students. The district knew that since its students have varying needs and interests, a one-size-fits-all approach would not generate high levels of student engagement. To ensure the program could meet a variety of student schedules and to encourage high attendance, Woonsocket divided the summer into three, two-week sessions. Students could attend all six weeks of the program, or they could choose to attend just one or two sessions. The district also prioritized low Teacher-Student ratios in every classroom so that students received individualized instruction and attention. This value is most evident in their decisions around the research-based design principles of Duration, Student Recruitment and Attendance, and Class Size.