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Virtual Summer Enrichment that Aims for Real-World Impact

An out-of-school education leader shares insights on the challenges of a remote summer — and the strategies for success
Aim High

Summer enrichment programs can have profound, positive effects on students’ academic and social growth, but as the global coronavirus pandemic has thrown academic programs into disarray, how can meaningful learning and enrichment still happen?

Since 1986, Alec Lee and his Aim High organization have been bringing high-quality free summer learning to thousands of low-income middle school students in the San Francisco Bay Area. And that won’t change this summer, even though students and faculty of Aim High — as well as other enrichment programs around the country — will have to see each other through a computer screen.

“The delivery is different, but our mission, our goals, our values, are exactly the same,” says Lee. “We’ve forced ourselves to reimagine summer learning, not just take what we would do and stuff it into a Zoom call. We really said let’s address the needs of kids in this moment.”

Remote learning presented challenges during the school year, from “screen fatigue” to overcoming the hurdles of access to technology, and Lee says the summer will have its own host of obstacles. Drawing on his experience, he shares tips on how to design and deliver robust and compelling summer programs from a distance. 

Conduct a needs assessment

When it was clear Aim High would not be able to meet in person, the first thing the organization did was reach out to its community, and there was an immediate response. “We sent a needs assessment to all of our families, and we had nearly 800 responses in the first 48 hours. We were floored,” says Lee. The big takeaway for Aim High was that a focus on social-emotional learning will be even more important for students this year.    

Create a safe space

According to Lee, students’ need for community, connection, and belonging has never been more urgent. This summer, programming is about providing students a safe space to process the impact of the turbulent events of the past year, including the pandemic and remote learning, but also the current movements happening around racial inequities.

“We’re focused on very small group learning, with 10–15 kids and two teachers,” Lee says. “Kids need to process and talk about how traumatizing this moment in time is.” Activities like daily community circles to select issues to reflect on, STEAM challenges, book clubs, and more will help create an atmosphere to foster celebration and connection.  

Build and strengthen partnerships

Leverage existing partnerships — such as Aim High’s collaboration with San Francisco school districts — to provide students with what they will need for a successful program, such as access to computers and Internet connectivity. The organization has also reached out to regular donors for additional help, and launched partnerships with area nonprofits, including the San Francisco Circus Center and Girls on the Mic, a digital media production training program that will offer activities for students every afternoon.

Plan for the future

Plan a model that can stretch beyond just this summer, Lee says. Summer learning programs will need to think about how they can support students into the new school year.

“We know the early fall is going to be difficult and traumatic, so we need to support our kids when they return to school,” Lee says. Aim High will offer a “Beyond Aim High,” which will feature a mix of wellness calls, tutorials, counseling, and small get togethers throughout the year.  

Alec Lee received a master’s degree in education from HGSE in 1985.

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