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When summer school became cool

An empty classroom
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
O.k., o.k., we know this one is empty, but some high school students in the Detroit Public Schools say their classroom are far from empty.

Every June, kids and teachers across Michigan get a new lease on life.

This is the month they've looked forward to all school year - a sort of beacon of hope amidst dark seasons of state testing and parent-teacher conferences. Cue any number of movie scenes with kids exploding out of schools while Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out for Summer” blares in the background. 

But for thousands of Michigan kids, June just means more of the same. The punch-line of teacher threats become real; school's not out for summer. Yet in the tiny town of Niles, Michigan, summer school is getting a new look.

My idea of summer school has long been stolen from scenes of a Saturday detention with the Breakfast Club: Angst-ridden teenagers domineered by an adult with something to prove. So I headed to Ballard Elementary in Niles, Michigan to test my theory.

I met Jordan on the playground. He was balancing on a wooden beam with three of his friends. They call themselves the C.J. crew. I had spoken to them earlier in the day, and they asked if they were going to get some new questions. They were restless, so I went to the heart of things.

I asked Jordan if he was serving his first sentence. He said he did time at his old school. “I had summer school one time there. Like, they never let you go outside. They kept you in a hot room all day. You didn't even have a real teacher. You just had a janitor.”

This played into my expectations, but Jordan had different feelings about his time at Ballard. He explained that he was happy to be here - that if given the chance to stay home, he'd still come to school.

I tested the crowd for resentment - assuming Jordan was getting paid off by a teacher. But after hearing the description “super fun” a successive eight times, my attention turned from the potential for foul play. My theory was breaking down.

I met up with Mary Clanton after her class. She teaches fourth grade summer school but sticks around in the afternoon for a program called Summer My Way. This is where things get interesting at Niles Elementary. She described her students’ activities after lunch, “Fourth graders this time are doing stuff about rockets. There's an archery class. They have skateboarding classes and first aid classes. There's fire safety.” This list goes on with classes ranging from flag football to Lego robotics.

So here's how the program works. Any kid at Niles Community Schools who struggles academically during the school year can take summer school classes in the morning. When they get out, the place transforms into a summer-camp-meets-learning-enrichment program available to any Niles student free of charge. The kids can choose from three different learning tracks. There's Mad Scientist, Around the World, and Movin' and Fuelin'.

The idea is that the program helps kids apply what they learn in the morning.

For instance, Clanton's fourth graders have been working on multiplying decimals in summer school. In the afternoon, they're out building race cars and doing multiplication to measure for top speed.  Catherine Augustine is a senior policy researcher at the RAND cooperation - an education think tank. She explained that “if you have an afternoon activity that the kids are engaged in that does reflect what the kids learn in the morning, then I think that could be an ideal situation.”

Kids who aren't in summer school are in the Summer My Way program all day. This is all part of the trick. Ballard Elementary has become the place to be over the summer.

This all started two years ago when the local YMCA and district library reached out to Niles schools to figure out how to pull together all the summer programs available to Niles kids into a one-stop shop. 

Enter more than two dozen community partners -- like 4H and Lakeland Hospital. They contributed everything from curriculum to funds.

Summer My Way was rolled out last summer for the first time. This year, its 450 spots filled up within minutes of opening registration. Jerry Price is with United Way, one of the program's biggest financial partners. He described Niles as a city that has “not only embraced but has engaged in the future of their community.”

When I asked kids what they would be doing without Summer My Way, the answer was nearly unanimous: watching TV or playing video games.

 So while school may not be out of the summer, the kids of Niles, Michigan sure don't seem to mind.