More than 4,500 students throughout the county have returned to school less than a week after classes ended for the summer.
Students across the state and nation are expected to attend summer school in record numbers this year to help make up for lessons missed due to the coronavirus pandemic. About 20 percent of Pitt County Schools’ 23,000 students began attending classes on Thursday.
“It really is literally like school has ended for the summer and then we took a three-day break and it’s starting back again,” Pitt County Schools Public Information Officer Jennifer Johnson said. “So it is very unique.”
More than two dozen of the district’s 38 school sites are hosting elementary, middle or high school learners for 30 extra days of instruction. Students will spend about four-and-a-half hours a day (about 18 hours most weeks) in school through July 29.
“Summer is a typical break,” Johnson said. “We realize and we understand that, but this has not been a typical year. … We really can’t afford to take some time off.”
North Carolina lawmakers in April approved legislation requiring every school district in the state to offer an in-person summer school program. While the program is not mandatory for students, it was offered to those who had fallen behind in reading or math or were at risk of not being promoted to the next grade without some remediation.
For 13-year-old Asheton Jackson, who will begin eighth-grade at C.M. Eppes Middle School in August, the next eight weeks will mark the most time he has spent in a classroom in more than a year. Except for returning to campus for a few days this spring to take end-of-grade tests, Asheton has been learning at home since March 2020.
Registered nurse Kasheta Jackson and her husband chose full-time virtual learning for both their sons due to their teen’s auto-immune disease.
“I spent the better part of last year working in COVID,” Jackson said. “My first thought was to keep him healthy first, and we can fill in the gaps later on with school.”
But as months passed, Jackson found that her son, who had made A’s and B’s prior to the pandemic, became less engaged in school, and his grades suffered.
“Online teaching is great,” Jackson said. “I did both of my degrees online, my master’s and my doctorate, so I know that you can do it. There are some kids that did amazing with it. My son just wasn’t one of them, so I’m thankful that this was an opportunity for him.”
While repairs and renovations continue at Eppes this summer, Asheton and his peers are attending classes at E.B. Aycock Middle School, one of several sites hosting learners from more than one school.
South Central High School Assistant Principal Marty Baker said hundreds of students from his school as well as from J.H. Rose High School will spend part of their summer at South Central. But learners from the two schools are expected to have little interaction due to a schedule that includes separate classes and lunch periods.
Baker said that while he and Rose Assistant Principal Keith Neal, coordinators at the South Central site, would be happy to have students from the two schools form friendships, there are more pressing goals for the summer session.
“We only have 15 days per session,” Baker said. “Some of these kids have not been in school since March 13, 2020. I’ve got kids probably coming in the building that have not even been in high school and didn’t even get to finish really their eighth-grade year.
“They need to build relationships with the teachers in front of them as well as with the other kids in the class.”
To help accomplish that goal, students will begin the school day with a brief team-building activity or some other kind of social and emotional learning focus. Along with 90-minute periods of instruction, Baker has asked teachers to devote a short segment of the day to something a little more relaxed.
“I don’t care if they’re 18 years old, they’re still kids,” he said. “Do something fun.”
Shakela Knight, who is serving as site coordinator at Creekside Elementary, said the 150 students attending summer sessions should expect a camp-like learning atmosphere.
“Our goal is for the students to be excited and to want to come to summer school because this is their summer,” she said. “Typically summer is vacation, family time, so our goal is to make summer school as engaging as possible.”
For elementary students, the state requires that summer school programs provide physical education and one enrichment activity such as music, arts or sports, along with core subjects.
“It (summer school) is not going to make up for a whole year, especially if a student was virtual or didn’t participate as we would like for them to during the school year,” Knight said. “It’s going to fill in some gaps.”
Knight, who is assistant principal at Ayden Elementary, is heading the program at Creekside this summer while her students attend summer school at Grifton. Creekside’s Assistant Principal, Yolanda Williams, will become the school’s principal in August.
Johnson said assistant principals throughout the district have been called on to lead summer school to allow principals to devote their time to preparing for the next school year.
Assistant principals are paid $45 an hour for working a summer school site. Classified employees, including clerical staff, teacher assistants, school nutrition workers, custodians and bus drivers, are paid $20 an hour. Certified employees, including teachers and media coordinators, are being paid $40 an hour.
“It’s a good job for our teachers,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, sometimes our teachers have summer jobs as well just to make ends meet, so this was a way they could continue in their profession and keep serving Pitt County Schools students.”
Some districts across the state, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where more than 30,000 students are eligible to attend summer school, are struggling to find employees to staff the programs. In Pitt County Schools, about 1,100 of the district’s 3,600 employees expressed an interest in working at one or both sessions.
Grifton School Assistant Principal Casey Matthis said it was easier to fill positions for the first session, which ends July 1, because many educators hoped for time off in July before returning to school in August. Grifton’s summer school program is being staffed by teachers from Grifton and Ayden Elementary, as well as a few educators from Lakeforest Elementary.
“It’s giving teachers the opportunity to explore other schools,” Matthis said, adding that teachers welcome the chance to collaborate.
At Grifton, different student groups also are getting a chance to work together. Matthis has placed students from Grifton and Ayden in classes with one another for the summer.
One of four Restart schools in the district, Grifton would have had the option to add days to its school calendar even without state-mandated summer school.
“This is kind of replacing that for a lot of our kids,” Matthis said. “That (additional instructional time) will help prevent summer slide even more for a lot of our students.”
About 230 students are enrolled this summer at the school, which has about 400 students in a typical school year.
For summer school, elementary school hours will be 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and middle and high school hours will be 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
“I think it’s a good thing that it’s a half-day,” Matthis said. “They’re getting it, but they’re not getting burned out with it.”
High school students seeking credit recovery may not have to remain in classes through the end of July. Baker said that high school students will utilize the online resource Edgenuity to help identify areas where they need review. Once students have mastered those concepts, parents will be notified that their students are no longer required to attend summer school.
“There’s no way we can teach an 18-week course in 30 days; that’s impossible,” Baker said. “So what we want to do is really focus on the skills that the child needs, rather than teaching them what they already know.”
The approach may allow students to make up several credits during summer school so that they can get back on track and graduate high school on time.
“Really, what we want to do is give our kids hope … that they have they don’t have to retake those courses,” he said. “They can move on.”
Baker said that while students will use online resources, instruction will be facilitated by a teacher and there will be no homework.
“That’s for two reasons,” he said. “One, it’s summer and kids need a break; two, working at home, for the most part for some of these kids, didn’t work.”
Baker, who has served as principal of Wahl-Coates Elementary and North Pitt and Ayden-Grifton high schools in his 28 years as an educator, said this will be the largest and most unique summer school of his career.
“We’ve never seen it like this before because we’re in times that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “We’ve been in a pandemic that we’ve never seen before, so we have to do things differently.”