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In summer 1997, Chicago Public Schools launched Summer Bridge, a $34 million remedial effort. Then-CEO Paul Vallas created the program to complement tough new promotion standards that required students to meet cut scores on standardized tests or be held back. That year, 41,000 elementary students were required to attend Summer Bridge. About three-quarters of them made sufficient gains in test scores by summer’s end to avoid retention.

By 2005, summer school enrollment had swollen to nearly 140,000 students. Though Summer Bridge accounted for less than 25 percent of that total, catch-up programs and supports for special populations (English-language learners and students with disabilities) still far outweighed enrichment activities.

See “Trying to succeed where others failed,” Catalyst April 1998 and“Record enrollment in summer school, but ‘students don’t want to be here,’” Catalyst August 2005


Today, Chicago is among an increasing number of school districts that have shifted summer school’s focus from mandatory, catch-up work — an approach research has found ineffective — to opportunities to learn through engaging experiences, in hopes of stemming summer learning loss.

Research points to lost learning time and opportunity during the summer as a factor in the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students. For example, a Johns Hopkins study attributed two-thirds of the reading achievement gap between middle-class and low-income high school freshmen to unequal access to summer learning opportunities in elementary school.

In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched the Summer of Learning, through which about 140 organizations offered young people a mix of online and real-life learning opportunities. Despite concerns about uneven program quality and access and the impact of the digital divide, more than 100,000 digital “badges” were awarded to young people for completing learning activities.

See “Chicago, other districts try to reinvent summer learning,” Catalyst September 2013 and “For the record: Summer Learning Loss” Catalyst May 2014


The shift appears to be accelerating. Recent changes to the CPS promotion policy—especially the shift to the NWEA MAP as the standardized test on which promotion decisions are based—unexpectedly reduced remedial summer school even further. More students made promotion cutoffs than CPS anticipated, reducing the need for Summer Bridge and saving the district $1.6 million.

Meanwhile, the success of Chicago’s Summer of Learning prompted the city to expand the blend of virtual and real-life learning opportunities year-round through Chicago City of Learning. All CPS students have pre-set accounts that can be claimed by entering their name and student ID number. DePaul University’s Digital Youth Network oversees the effort—supported by a $1.5 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Perhaps most importantly, the City of Learning is building bridges between city agencies, like collaborations between the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Public Library to keep kids reading all summer long.

See “Summer school enrollment down under new promotion policy,” Catalyst July 2014 and “Reading takes center stage at summer camps,” Catalyst July 2013

Photo: Book on table/

Maureen Kelleher

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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