Schools, community groups struggle to meet demand for summer learning without state funds

Districts have scaled back summer learning programs, offering fewer classes and field trips, and some community groups have cut programs entirely

By: - July 20, 2023 6:00 am

Youth at an ancestral fermentation class held by nonprofit CAPACES over the summer of 2022. CAPACES was able to quadruple programming with summer learning grants from the state that year. (Photo courtesy of CAPACES)

School districts hoping to use the summer months to catch students up before fall have been left by the state Legislature to do less with less, officials said. 

For the past two years, Oregon school districts and community-based organizations such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club have received millions in public funding for summer learning programs from the Legislature: a record high of $240 million in 2021 and $150 million in 2022. 

This summer lawmakers gave them no additional funding. As a result, both small and large districts have pared back their offerings this summer, according to interviews with the Capital Chronicle. Some community groups have cut field trips and the number of hours of classes each day. Some groups have cut their programs entirely.

The lack of options has affected thousands of students across the state, according to a survey from the nonprofit Oregon Afterschool & Summer for Kids Network. It’s especially detrimental to students who’ve suffered setbacks and are still catching up from lost class time during the pandemic. It’s also deprived students of much-needed social and emotional resources.

Administrators and community group leaders say that legislators must think students only needed two summers to catch up from the pandemic. 

“This idea of unfinished learning that is a result of the pandemic is not a one and done thing,” said Suzanne West, who leads Salem-Keizer school district’s summer programming. “The young people, especially our youngest students, they’ll be in our system matriculating for the next 10 to 11 years. I’m not suggesting that it’s going to take that long to get them caught up, but it isn’t something that you can resolve in a summer or two for many of these young people.”

Salem-Keizer is on track to serve several thousand more students this summer than in years prior, but will not be able to offer popular robotics and science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, courses that they had in the past two years.

“I think our legislators need to have more of a long-term viewpoint on what it’s going to take for the state in particular, but also locally, just to really address the unfinished learning that resulted from the pandemic,” West said. 

During the recent Legislative session, Sens. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Sara Gelser-Blouin, D-Corvallis, attempted to get funds for summer programs passed for this year through Senate Bill 531, which moved to the Senate Ways & Means Committee in late February and never left. By early May, then-director of the Oregon Department of Education, Colt Gill, sent a letter to district leaders telling them summer learning money was unlikely to come. State leaders were concerned about a tight state budget, with little idea that by May 17, they’d learn the state revenue forecast was nearly $2 billion higher than anticipated. Despite Democratic leaders in the House and Senate backing record funding for schools via the state school fund in June, it was too late by then to direct such funds to summer school. Most smaller districts need to finish their planning by April, and most larger districts start planning as early as October. 

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Six-week walkout

District administrators and community group leaders who talked with the Capital Chronicle said the six-week walkout by Senate Republicans over bills to protect reproductive rights and access to gender-affirming care played a role in losing summer learning funds. 

“I think it was just the disruption in the session that caused this and other bills to fail,” said Marisa Fink, executive director of the Oregon Alliance of YMCAs.

Brent Barry, superintendent in the Phoenix-Talent School District said he and other school leaders watched the session tick down to a “point of no return” when it came to funding summer school programs.

“Obviously, the legislative session was crazy,” he said. 

In a text message, Dembrow, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers were not able to get more funding. He said he hoped that this summer, districts would use any remaining COVID-relief funds they had from the U.S. Department of Education on summer classes, as well as Student Success Act money from the state for programs that serve traditionally underserved students, as well as providing counselors and emotional support staff. 

Sen. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee, was adamant that it was not the Senate Republicans walking out of the Legislative session that tanked summer school funding. But Weber, who joined the walkout, declined to address why the lawmakers could not get summer programs funded. 

She said that as a retired teacher, she didn’t harbor illusions about recovering from pandemic learning losses in two years.

“I know that it takes longer to catch up after something as catastrophic as COVID was to our kids,” she said.  

State Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, who heads the House Committee on Education, said she shares the disappointment that district officials feel about the funding. 

“We know these programs work. We need to provide our schools with stable, strategic investments,” Neron said via text message. 

‘Double whammy’

In Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, the number of “hub sites” offering summer programming across the city has shrunk from 25 last year to 17 this year. The district is serving about 400 fewer students this summer than the last one, according to Darcy Soto, who oversees the summer learning programs. Soto said the district is using its temporary federal COVID-relief dollars to fund summer learning this year. That money must be used by September 2024, and is the last of the federal funding districts will receive to help with pandemic recovery.

“We’ve created a bridge,” she said, “but the road on the other side of the canyon is not yet built, and we are really hoping that the Legislature will come in on that.”

She and other school district leaders said they need the Legislature to commit to consistent funding. 

“It needs to be decades-long support,” said Barry of Phoenix-Talent. “Especially with us, still dealing with the fire. We have a double whammy,” he said, referring to the 2020 Alameda Fire that displaced hundreds of students and their families in the district in southern Oregon. 

Last year, more than 400 kids participated in summer programs in the Phoenix-Talent School District. This summer, 180 students are participating, Barry said. 

In the 12 districts served by the Malheur Education Service District in eastern Oregon, summer programming has reverted to more spare, pre-pandemic options, said Superintendent Mark Redmond. Programs are mostly geared at students who qualify for support under the federal Migrant Education Program, which aims to ensure that kids in highly mobile families that move seasonally for work earn a high school diploma. 

Some summer school programs that used to be a month long are now a week long.

“It’s clearly not as robust as it was the last few years from those that additional funding,” he said. 

In Roseburg in southwest Oregon, Superintendent Jared Cordon said the lack of summer school funding was not only a loss for students but for their families as well. 

“Families in our rural community struggle to find child care and activities for their children over the summer, and I know many were disappointed not to have this additional resource,” he said.

Community groups

For community groups, some of which have received six-figure grants from the state to offer programming during the last two summers, the cuts have been deeper. Some weren’t able to offer anything this summer. 

The nonprofit Oregon Afterschool & Summer for Kids Network recently surveyed leaders from community groups that received state funding for summer learning last year. 

About 20% of respondents said they’d be unable to offer any programming this summer due to the loss of state funds. Three-quarters said they anticipated offering fewer programs than last year and more than half said they’d be unable to maintain current staffing levels. All-in-all, they anticipated serving about half as many of the 120,000 youth as they had the summer prior. 

Summer learning programs provided by the YMCA in Milton Freewater, Albany and Tillamook County all scaled back some options for students, even if they were serving larger numbers of students. According to correspondence among local directors and Fink, the head of the Oregon Alliance of YMCAs, some cut back on field trips and resource-intensive projects. 

In Tillamook, each week of summer programming has always had a special theme, according to Emily Critelli, operations director for the Tillamook County Family YMCA. The lack of state funding has stretched the limits of their budget and imaginations. 

“Staff have really had to get creative,” she said.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.

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