By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
As a former teacher and a principal, Birmingham Schools Superintendent (BCS) Mark Sullivan, Ed.D., knows about the summer slide, which occurs when students are out of school and lose much of what they’ve learned the previous year—“particularly among minority students and students who have low socioeconomic status,” he said.
“Typically, [those students] are not engaged in some activity because some activities can be expensive for parents paying for summer camps,” Sullivan added, noting that some of the challenges families faced during the COVID-19 pandemic may contribute to some of the steepest learning loses faced by educators and teachers in years.
On Tuesday, Sullivan announced BCS will require face coverings in all schools and facilities following the new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We follow the science-based recommendations from medical and public health professionals,” he said. “Our goal is to provide a safe and healthy environment for our students and our employees.”
BCS students return to school with in-person learning on August 2. This comes after BCS took several steps to provide a wholesome environment and address the learning gap this summer—and the results are being seen across the 42-school district.
Sullivan is pleased by the numerous summer programs that took place through June and July to provide educational opportunities for students preparing to embark on the fall semester. This year’s increase of students in summer school has been the “most we’ve ever had,” the superintendent said, pointing out that there were nearly 4,000 students in attendance, as well as another 1,900 students in literacy camps, which are designed to prepare students in kindergarten through third grade for the third-grade literacy test.
Because BCS students were unable to get consistent instruction for the whole year [due to the pandemic], “our summer programs had to be strong, they had to be robust,” said Sullivan.
“We wanted to ensure that we had as many kids as possible involved in summer programs. We partnered with local agencies, like the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, and some other programs. The district also conducted other programs to get as many kids as possible in summer programs to give them a good start for the fall.”
Sullivan stressed the importance of these summer enrichment programs as a means of avoiding a repeat a cycle of hardship for many students.
“If kids are not properly educated, you will oftentimes have another generation of poverty,” he said. “We know that it takes education to break these cycles of poverty, it takes care, it takes [effort]. … If you can’t read, you can’t do math, you can’t problem solve, then it’s very difficult for you to be successful in life. … That’s why we have to make sure our kids are on grade level and beyond.”
Even with the struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were some bright spots, according to Sullivan.
“We have technology that we would not have had prior to the pandemic. … We bought $10 million worth of devices for our kids, and every student has a device, whether that be a Chromebook, iPad, or a Dell laptop. We [also] spent $2 million on hotspots for students. … [The pandemic] has accelerated our technology program, so our kids are familiar with this digital environment,” he said.
Here’s a closer look at some the programs that provided learning opportunities for BCS students this summer.
Kingdom Kids, Huffman
Kingdom Family Christian Fellowship, located in the Huffman community, provides a faith-based program that caters to students in kindergarten through eighth grade—Kingdom Kids Enrichment. Camp Director Carolyn Wheeler said the goal of this year’s summer program was to help those students who may not have learned much during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of the children did not get online virtually to do what they needed to do,” said Wheeler. “We knew that was going to hurt, so our number-one goal was to bridge the gap.”
Kingdom Kids, which hosted 35 children, helped in other ways, too.
“I feel like with everything that’s going on with COVID-19, a lot of the children have lost some faith because they’ve lost loved ones, you know, family members and people that really mean a lot to them,” said Wheeler. “I think it’s important that we reaffirm what Jesus says, who God is, and how sometimes the Lord takes us through things to open our eyes to other things we need to be aware of.”
Children enrolled in the Kingdom Kids program participated in a full day of activities, starting as early as 6:15 a.m. and sometimes ending at 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Sessions included arts and crafts, leadership, sewing, and sports, in addition to dedicated time to read the Bible. The program, which has been conducted for the past four years, has been awarded a grant through Summer Adventures and Learning (SAIL), which allows Kingdom Kids to pay certified teachers and buy new technology, such as computers and laptops, as well as provide Wi-Fi access and other basic supplies to contribute to student success.
“We use STAR Assessments, [standardized, computer-adaptive tests to determine student skills], in addition to pretesting [students],” said Wheeler.
“What we’re trying to do is show that if you keep the kids interested and try to make learning fun throughout the summer, they won’t [think], ‘I don’t want to do this.’ We’ve talked to our teachers, our certified teachers within Jefferson County Schools, as well as BCS. If we can show that we made a difference, that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
Wheeler added that children in the program acquire lifelong skills.
“The children being social is wonderful. That’s a good thing,” she said. “It’s a lifetime change. … There’s a lot of bonding. We see it all the time, and then we find out that some of the children love the same things.”
Kingdom Kids Enrichment summer program lasted from June 17 to July 30 at the Kingdom Family Christian Fellowship recreational center.
Wilkerson Middle School
Summer is often a time for students to stay busy and have some fun. At West Birmingham’s Malachi Wilkerson Middle School, administrators brainstormed ways to also encourage learning through health-and-wellness activities that included culinary lessons, physical education, photography, graphic design, and nail technician classes—equipping BCS students with new skill sets prior to the first day of school, which is August 2.
Classes were rotated, and each student had the opportunity to participate in whichever program they desired. The nail technician classes were the most popular with students, said Aulundria Grace, assistant principal at Wilkerson.
“We had all females in the classroom because we were [focusing on] health and wellness with nail [care], but then we were surprised to learn that [many] males [enjoyed the class, as well],” she said. “These [young men] have female influences in their lives that mean so much to them—mothers, sisters, aunts—so they took an interest in nails.”
The nail tech program also introduced a potential future for some students.
“You could see a lot of growth even in the very first week of working with nails and nail technicians,” Grace said. “You could see the love, you could see the enthusiasm. Some students even expressed that they want that to be their career, that’s something that they actually want to do, and they plan to continue this and pursue it after they graduate from high school.”
Students who participated in the nail tech classes learned something new every day, said Wellness Teacher Nail Tech Ashley Shelley. They started the day with a music meditation and then learned different nail techniques, such as shaping and applying gel and dip powders. Fridays of each week were called “Freestyle Fridays,” when the students chose their own techniques and style designs.
Shelley added that the summer initiative was rewarding for the students: “Instead of just sitting around at home, they were actually learning something. By the second week, everybody knew what they wanted to do. It gave them something positive and fun to do from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.”
Student participation this year was significantly larger than it was last year, when the summer program was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[Students] were virtual from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in regular school, [so] the last thing they wanted at that time was to go online for another two hours and be virtual in front of a computer screen,” said Grace, who also serves as site director for the program, “But now, because we can go back to in person, we have all of these activities for the students to participate in to actually bridge that gap.”
Grace said she was pleased by the results.
“It has been a confidence booster,” she said. “There are some students who may or may not be A or B honor roll students because academics may not be their strong suit, but those students can ‘bring it’ and flourish in the activities we have. We have students who take amazing pictures. We have students with great culinary skills. We have just been amazed with the health and wellness abilities of those students who participated in nail tech.”
The program at Wilkerson Middle was made possible through a 21st Century Community Learning grant, called the Birmingham Regional Empowerment and Development (BREAD) Program.
“21st Century BREAD [made] sure we had all the equipment and everything we needed,” said Grace. “They just told us to dream big and make sure we bring programs to the students that provide lifelong skills they would actually acquire and enjoy—and that’s exactly what we did. The response from the students has just been overwhelming.”