Can NYC’s summer school program help make up for a pandemic year?

High demand and a rushed rollout have left some teachers and organizations feeling unprepared for an influx of kids to summer programming.

Students at P.S. 78.

Students at P.S. 78. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

With just days to go till the city’s summer school program kicks off Tuesday, educators and community-based organizations are scrambling to prepare for an influx of students to sites all across the city. 

It’s been an ambitious undertaking — one that has been both praised by educators and community leaders for the relief it will offer families and criticized for the logistical issues that have occurred in its rollout. 

The free program, called Summer Rising, is available to all K-12 students, rather than solely those who are behind in their school work as was the case in previous years. Over 200,000 K-12 students have signed up as of June 31 — a number that is likely only going to rise before the program begins Tuesday, July 6, as parents can still sign up. Chalkbeat reported that last year, roughly 115,000 students were required or recommended to attend. 

Many organizations and principals at the hundreds of Summer Rising sites across the city have struggled to recruit enough staff to match the demand. 

Further complicating things, educators were told Wednesday to expect an additional influx of students. Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter informed educators in an email that students who were waitlisted at oversubscribed programs would be placed in a summer program site regardless of the previous number of seats available. The late decision could mean some sites will have more children showing up on the first day of the program than educators had planned for when purchasing supplies and recruiting staff. 

While this news could bring some relief to parents like Sonia Diaz who tried to sign her 9-year-old daughter up for the site at her school in Staten Island, it’s also been met with some concern from educators and providers who were already scrambling to hire additional staff prior to the announcement. 

"For months, we have raised concerns and frustrations about how the DOE has chosen to handle Summer Rising enrollment. This last-minute change is a desperate attempt to solve for a problem, on the backs of principals, that the DOE created and had plenty of time to correct,” said Mark Cannizzaro, the head of the city principals union, in a statement.

Diaz said she wants Summer Rising to be an outlet for her daughter and a place she can interact with her peers.

“She has been exclusively remote all this time, not stepping foot into a school building in over a year,” Diaz said. “It’s important she gets signed up to let her get out of the house and interact with her school friends again before they head into the building in September.” 

Department of Education Associate Press Secretary Sarah Casasnovas said the department would share updated communication with families regarding student program placement by the end of this week. 

“Every student will have a place within our Summer Rising program, and we're thrilled over 200,000 students are signed up,” she said. “We look forward to welcoming families to programs next week and providing students with a comprehensive summer experience that includes rigorous academics, social emotional support and opportunities to have fun.”

Educators and city leaders have touted Summer Rising as an experience that combines academic support with social and emotional learning and enrichment programming to offer families child care services and provide a “bridge” to children’s return to the classroom in the fall following a vastly challenging school year. 

K-8 students will experience a blend of academic programming staffed by the Department of Education in the morning as well as enrichment activities which are being run by community organizations in the afternoon. High schoolers will receive additional academic support or can participate in paid work experience and internship opportunities like the Summer Youth Employment Program, according to the Department of Education.

A spokesperson from the teachers union United Federation of Teachers said rigorous health and safety protocols will be followed, and each site will have access to nursing support and a telehealth center. 

However, efforts to pull off the summer program largely hinge on educators and community organization staff. The city announced Summer Rising in April, so educators and program operators have been operating on a tight deadline all while learning to navigate the multi-agency partnership of the city Department of Youth and Community Development, which is the contractor of the community organizations running the afternoon enrichment activities, and the city Department of Education. 

Regarding staffing, Casasnovas said the DOE is working closely with schools and union partners to make sure there is appropriate staffing to “hit the ground running” on Tuesday. She said there’s been a strong number of applicants overall and a supportive number of substitute teachers available to help as needed. Interested educators are still able to apply. 

These efforts are still unlikely to solve the issue of staffing for the Department of Education’s community organization partners. 

“While many teachers need a break after a year of unprecedented challenges, we are hearing the more pressing staffing shortages are for school administrators and for the community-based organizations that are involved with this year’s extended-day programming,” said a UFT spokesperson. 

Chante Brown, a division director at Good Shepherd Services, which is running 15 Summer Rising sites in the Bronx, said there’s a lot of pressure given the looming Tuesday start date. 

“We want to gain our community’s trust, we want our children to be safe and have fun, we just need the people to help us do it,” she said, explaining that recruiting and getting staff cleared has been a challenging process.

Brown said Good Shepherd Services has changed its approach in how it’s trying to recruit staff, leaning away from touting monetary compensation and realizing people are going to get involved because they are passionate about working with children. 

“This is about love now. We are going back to the community. We are going old school — we are really sending out fliers in the community,” Brown said. 

Posting fliers is just one example of problem-solving that has been born from the challenges of preparing for Summer Rising. Unsure about whether they’ll be able to take students on field trips given the evolving nature of the pandemic and pending approval of administrators, Brown said Good Shepherd Services also purchased virtual reality headsets to give students virtual experiences like hiking in Paris. 

An initial lack of funding for Summer Rising has been a big contributor to the hiring challenges, according to Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at Good Neighborhood Housing, a group whose members are holding Summer Rising programs at 165 sites. 

She explained that community organization partners were told in June that they would only be given a 3% increase of their contracted funding levels. According to her and other community organizations, this was not an adequate increase because the current mandated staffing ratios are lower than what they were during previous years due to the pandemic, meaning that community-based organizations have had to hire more staff than they have in the past. 

Community organization providers received some relief Wednesday with the approval of the fiscal year 2022 budget in the form of a $24 million increase to the Summer Rising budget. According to a Department of Youth and Community Development email sent to Summer Rising providers Wednesday afternoon, this amounts to a 30% increase to the budget for elementary school programs and a 10% increase for middle school. 

Moran said the increased funding does give providers some more financial stability for their programming, meaning they’ll be able to cover some of the higher costs of staffing and additional supplies. However, she said, given the city’s announcement that all waitlisted students are going to be assigned a site, there is concern about having enough staff Tuesday to safely serve the students who show up. 

“We are monitoring this very closely and calling on the city to make sure that the program (starting) on Tuesday has adequate staffing coverage,” she said. 

Sandra Escamilla, executive director of Children’s Aid, which is operating a number of Summer Rising sites throughout Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, said that while government coordination and preparation for the program hasn’t been seamless, principals, providers and community school directors have been problem-solving in real time.

“That has always been the real treasure of this – that we are building on existing partnerships, existing relationships that are trying to map out a myriad of scenarios before they get word,” Escamilla said. “More than ever I would say that partnership has been solidified through the lack of clarity.” 

Like other community organization providers, she said things have been stressful – at some sites they won’t know if some staff members will receive clearances to work until opening day, but she thinks the city is doing everything it can to make sure it happens in a timely manner. 

Despite the challenges though, she’s hopeful for what the future might bring – both for students this summer and fall as well as future collaboration between the various organizations and agencies. 

“When we look back to tell this story, I am hopeful that we will be able to say that there was a moment in time when things changed in the city … to meet young people at a most critical time in their lives and give them what they need,” Escamilla said. “That’s the story that I want to be part of telling.”