Spencer Pritchard, lead teacher for African American Studies at Berkeley High School, teaches an in-person summer class on June 29, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

On a foggy June morning, Alan Miller takes a lap around his classroom at Berkeley High, bending down to help each of his nine English Language Development students brainstorm for their upcoming essays about home.

Miller, who has been teaching at Berkeley High for 30 years, asks the students, who are in ninth and 11th grades, questions to spark their memories: “When you open the door, what do you see?” he asks one student. “Who’s in charge?” he prompts another.

The students, some of whom come from Pakistan and Mexico, are back on campus for the first time in 15 months. While Berkeley elementary students returned to class in person in March, middle and high schoolers could only attend a few hours a week.

Miller is one of 60 teachers instructing summer school, which boasts everything from English language classes to chemistry experiments to robotics lessons. Classes are four weeks for elementary and middle school students and six weeks for high schoolers, and there’s a virtual option, too.

“This group suffered a lot from distance learning because a lot of language is physical and uses proximity and visual cues,” Miller explained.

Berkeley’s summer school prioritizes those who struggled acutely with distance learning — who were chronically absent, had persistent technology issues, dealt with food or housing insecurity or mental health challenges — as well as students who simply failed classes. But there are also optional enrichment classes, like Miller’s.

With more students failing classes during distance learning, there has been more attention than ever paid to summer school, billed as an opportunity for students to catch up. 

“I’m really focusing on building those foundational skills so that when the kids return to school in second grade, their teacher doesn’t have to close as many gaps,” said Cody Schmidt, a first-grade teacher at Rosa Parks.

But teachers say it’s a mistake to expect that summer school could make up for lost hours during the school year.  “I don’t think it’s going to solve or even really chip away at how ineffective full-time distance learning has been for some students,” said Spencer Pritchard, who is teaching a world history class at Berkeley High this summer for the third year in a row. 

Some studies show that summer school does little to boost student achievement. Nevertheless, in school districts across California, summer school enrollment has ballooned, reaching record-high numbers, doubling or even tripling in some districts.

Berkeley’s summer school saw a modest increase in enrollment. There are 32 more elementary students enrolled in summer school than in 2019, and the middle school math academy is serving 120 more students. Enrollment at the high school remains about the same at 256 students this year. 

In addition to providing credit recovery, teachers and administrators see this year’s summer school as a chance to provide the social interaction that students have been badly missing.

“It’s getting used to being safe around people outside of your household. It’s feeling comfortable being back in a routine. It’s having a place at Berkeley High,” said Leah Katz, co-principal of Berkeley High’s summer school.

Pritchard said the feeling in the classroom is palpably different from previous years. “Students felt really energized and excited to be back in the classroom,” Pritchard said. “We’re getting past the pandemic, we’re able to come back to some sort of normal, and the excitement that came with that still exists today in the classroom.”

Holden Marksburg and Eric Gonzales, both students in Pritchard’s class, said they have been glad for the chance to socialize with friends. They learn better in person, both boys said. 

The district received $6.6 million in state funds to offer expanded learning options, some of which will be spent to bolster this year’s summer offerings: Berkeley tacked on two additional weeks for high schoolers compared to last year, and a counselor is on-site to provide emotional support to students who need it. 

Still, teachers say extra time is no reason to rush through more curriculum. “The academic gains are always available. All the other things are layered into it this year. People are doing a lot of community building,” Katz said. 

Pritchard says he’s using the additional time to build in community building — he takes his class on walks, listens to music with them during breaks, and checks in with every student.   

In addition to the traditional summer school classes, there are college-level courses through Berkeley City College and classes for Bridge and RISE, college prep programs that serve primarily low-income students of color. At elementary summer school, nearly twice as many students, as usual, have enrolled in the afternoon summer camp, which emphasizes play. 

Students in Berkeley High’s summer robotics class pose for a group photo. Photo: Dirk Wright

There’s also a new two-week arts immersion program, where students will explore art forms like hip-hop and creative movement with the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, spoken word with Freight & Salvage, storytelling with Kala Art Institute, and improvisation with Berkeley Rep. From July 12 to 23 at Washington, Sylvia Mendez, and Rosa Parks elementary schools, teaching artists from local organizations will run workshops for the students. 

“This past school year brought on a lot of change and trauma for our students and these experiences will provide joy, fun, and healing,” said Aaron Jorgenson, program supervisor of Extended Learning for BUSD.

Though there’s more interest in summer school, Schmidt said it hasn’t been easy to fill teaching spots, with teachers leaving the profession and a nationwide teaching shortage looming. “There’s a lot more demand for summer school on the kids’ side, and there’s less participation on the teacher side because the teachers were really burnt out from the year,” Schmidt said. However, Katz said it was no more difficult than usual to fill teaching spots at the high school.

Summer school won’t be the only chance for students to make up for poor grades. California just passed a law, AB 104, allowing those with poor marks to convert their grades to pass or no pass, enroll in a fifth year of high school for juniors or seniors, and retake a grade level.

While the district has not yet explained how they will implement the new rules, Brent Stephens said they will offer these options in the coming year.

Meanwhile, Miller has been implementing the same balanced approach to teaching that he has used for years, exposing students to reading and writing and leaving room for games and conversation. “Language is inherently social. They need to have that time to socialize with one another,” he said.

A few weeks into the class, and Miller said he already sees improvement, noticing some students are able to write more independently. “I think this group really needs the face-to-face, and there is nothing like it,” Miller said.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...