quest diagnostics

NYC summer program cuts testing to weigh learning benefits

Jennifer Rosario (right), a social worker with Partnership with Children, teaches students from the South Bronx Academy for Applied Media to make smoothies.

An ambitious pilot to stem summer learning loss for low-income New York City students wrapped up its second year this month. But officials will have to wait a little longer before they can tell for sure how much it’s working.

When the pilot, called NYC Summer Quest, began last summer, city education officials wanted to test students to measure how much the gap narrowed by after finishing the five-week program. They asked schools to give the students an extra set of tests at the end and beginning of the school year.

But it didn’t work out as planned. Principals in participating schools quickly pointed out that June and September were too hectic to make their highest-need children sit for more tests.

“It was really hard on the schools,” said Ali Tan, Summer Quest’s program director at the Department of Education.

This year, Tan said the job of measuring academic progress is being handled by the department’s central staff and will be based on state tests that students already take April.

But the program’s success will also rely heavily on other metrics, such as attendance rates, parent engagement, and survey responses from students and parents who participated in the program.

Tan said the change in philosophy is among the hard lessons from the first year of implementation of Summer Quest, which launched a three-year pilot in 2012 with 1,100 students and $2.5 million in private donations. It expanded this year with an extra $2 million in public dollars.

The goal, officials said, is to transform summer school for students from high-need communities.

Summer school in New York City has traditionally been reserved for students who failed the state exams and face repeating their previous grade over again. But Summer Quest partnered with community based organizations like Children’s Aid Society and Good Shepherd Services to offer more than just a few hours of lessons in preparation for an end-of-summer test.

“It’s a totally different 21st-century model for what summer represents for our students and making sure that there’s both fun but that there’s also learning taking place,” said Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who visited many of the 11 schools where Summer Quest programs were held this summer.

The eight-hour daily schedule is also packed with enrichment activities. At South Bronx Academy for Applied Media, that meant baking classes and dance lessons before lunch, and field trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the afternoon.

People who have worked on the pilot say the reduced emphasis on test scores is also a reminder of how challenging it is to evaluate extended learning time initiatives. They say they expect the benefits to accumulate over time, rather than suddenly appear after one five-week period.

“What our scholars are learning now is more internal,” said Andrea Lawrence, assistant principal at South Bronx Academy, which enrolled about 135 middle school students in Summer Quest this year.

That’s one reason officials aren’t alarmed that there isn’t yet academic data to show whether the program is working. They say having a place to go during the summer gives students a way to keep pace with their peers from more affluent families, who often pay to enroll in many different summer programs and camps in the summer.

Eighth grader Lyanna Marrer didn’t cite improved test scores as the reason she volunteered to return to Summer Quest for a second straight year. She said her alternative was “playing on my bed and watching TV.”

With the absence of hard academic data after one year of Summer Quest, officials pointed to other measures as proof of success during the first year. Families leave satisfied, surveys show, and parents often become more engaged in school activities in the next school year, officials said. Middle school students in particular reported feeling more connected to their schools and more confident handling more difficult work.

Summer Quest was originally designed to serve students who scored high enough on state tests to be promoted, but who officials said could still benefit from enrichment and academic activities over the summer. But this year the program also included some students required to attend summer school, and officials said they wanted to know how these students performed compared to similar students enrolled in traditional summer school.  In addition to state tests, Summer Quest participants will also take the city’s summer school exam, administered the first week of August, and then compared to similar students enrolled in traditional summer school programs.

Even though the results won’t be in for some time, people who worked on the program this year say the benefits are already detectable. Jennifer Rosario, one of 27 part-time social workers from Partnership with Children assigned to South Bronx Academy this summer, said that the smoothie-making class she taught is filled with moments where students learn new things. She recalled explaining the key nutrients of their newest ingredient, bananas, and giving students a primer on where fruits fit on the food triangle.

Sitting nearby with a small glass of a strawberry smoothie, Lydia Colon, an an eighth grader, said she literally couldn’t think of anything better to do in the summer than come to school for Summer Quest each day.

“In the beginning of the summer, I have nothing to do,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d be on the street.”

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Also participating in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst ChicagoEdSource (California), and GothamSchools’ sister site EdNewsColorado.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”