Chess, karate, crafts and coding: This is 'not the summer school of old,' CPS says
By Madeline Mitchell, Cincinnati Enquirer
Brightly colored beads are tucked away safely in a plastic Ziploc baggie on Kenya Davis' desk. The day's craft workshop is almost over, and it’s nearly time for her favorite activity: chess.
Kenya says she learned how to play chess during the school year, but she’s really grown into it this summer. No one else in her Mount Airy School fourth grade class will play her anymore, though — she's too good.
The chess teacher, Josiah Davis (no relation), is the only one who will play chess with her now. She waits expectedly for him to arrive, a glimmer in her eye and winning smile at the ready.
"I beat him already," she says.
When Davis walks in the room, the rest of the students pair up and set up their boards. Kenya stays towards the front of the room, a plastic mat chessboard on her desk. She carefully assembles the pieces. She's missing a bishop, and calls to Davis to find one from another set.
Their first few moves go by in a blur. Kenya is impressive — she castles right away, a somewhat advanced move to protect her king. Davis does the same.
"Quit copying my moves," Kenya tells him.
Within minutes her queen is in the line of fire. Kenya's eyes widen, but she is safe. This time.
Kenya puts her finger on a bishop, then reconsiders and moves the rook. Davis tells her that’s cheating. If you touch it, you move it.
The two bicker like siblings. Kenya thinks she should get a redo since she’s younger. They leave to consult another teacher, and Kenya comes back with her arms crossed in front of her chest.
What's the verdict?
"She has to move the bishop," Davis says.
Kenya takes her time with her next move. Chess is all about thinking, she says.
Eventually Kenya's king is cornered, immobile. Checkmate.
"I just did that on purpose," Kenya tells Davis. "I'm gonna let you win because I always beat you."
For Kenya, this is as good as school gets.
Kenya's summer school morning was spent reading and practicing double-digit multiplication sets, but it’s the afternoon enrichment that makes summer scholars so unique. Every Cincinnati Public Schools building offered its own program this year, aimed at reconciling students’ lost instruction time during the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers and administrators hope the program helps reconcile lost bonding and socializing time, too.
"A lot of times people want to talk about the ‘COVID slide’ or 'learning loss,'" says John P. Parker School principal Kimberly Mack. "But we try to get away from thinking about what has occurred during COVID in deficit terms. What have our kids gained during this pandemic closure?"
'Not summer school of old'
Many kids learned how to use computers during the pandemic, Mack says. Others found strength in the arts, or in dancing. Kenya found chess.
“This type of program allows kids to show what they can do rather than thinking about what they cannot do, or what they have not gained yet," Mack says.
The district has offered summer learning programs before, for third graders and high school students. Those sessions have historically been half-days and focused on remediation, not enrichment.
But interim superintendent Tianay Amat says this year's program is "not the summer school of old." Teachers and administrators are committed to building relationships with students and fostering resilience.
CPS lost track of hundreds of students at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and has worked since to find them again, often by knocking on doors. Other students who technically stayed enrolled were not given the resources they needed during remote learning and fell behind. Some lost family members. Others went hungry for months.
Each student then had a specific set of needs coming into summer school, in addition to the state's math and reading goals.
What to do then? Prioritize what was important with what could be done and where the greatest need lay.
"What we're looking for, first and foremost, (is) that they're healthy and happy. They have been isolated for a little over a year," Amat says of CPS students. "We just want to make sure that we continue to connect with our students. I don't want to overlook that. What's more important, in my opinion, is to have a safe and happy environment for our students."
That's true for teachers, too. Mack says her teachers and staff have talked a lot about self care since CPS has returned to in-person learning. She preaches to her employees: Without taking care of ourselves, how can we give students what they need?
"When you are feeling that fatigue or that burnout, it can permeate everything that you do," Mack says.
"We have to go above and beyond to meet their needs," she says of the students. "If we want to really talk about where the kids are — they've experienced trauma, you know? And when they come in the door we have to be prepared to address the academics, but before we can even get to the academics we need to address the social/emotional. Because we know that when your basic needs are threatened, you don't feel like you can really learn."
Both Mack and Amat have adjudged summer scholars a huge success. Students attended throughout the month of June for a free, full-day experience. Summer scholars included two meals and transportation, made possible through pandemic relief funding. Amat says the district will analyze attendance and academic data later this year to assess the impact of the program and evaluate if and how it can continue for summers to come.
Looking to the future
Over at John P. Parker School, incoming seventh-graders Marleigh Brown and Ty Hix are enjoying their own set of enrichment activities. Ty's favorite is going out into the garden to learn about pollinators: bees, bats and hummingbirds. He says he's making a pollinator garden of his own at home.
Ty says he didn't mind doing school from home during the pandemic, since he could stay in his pajamas. Marleigh, on the other hand, has four siblings at home and shares a bedroom with her sister. She says she often got distracted while trying to focus on her own work. She says she learned a lot, but was not sure she retained most of the material.
"A lot that went through my head," Marleigh says. "When we got back to school, then (the teacher) asked us questions and I was like, 'Oh, I finally understand.'"
Both are nervous and excited to change schools this fall. Ty is off to Shroder High School, and Marleigh will attend Walnut Hills High School. Marleigh's been working on getting organized. She has been practicing taking things in and out of her backpack to see how easily she can do it, "in case, like, I had to hurry up and get to a class."
Teachers and administrators are preparing in their own way. Mack knows it has been and will continue to be a challenge to "rebound" into another year of teaching and supporting students. She said this year has been very difficult for her. She and her siblings got sick with COVID-19, and one of her brothers died from it.
If she learned anything from that loss, Mack says, it is to not give up and focus on the things that are important. For her, that's the children at John P. Parker School and their futures.
Kenya, a soon-to-be fifth-grader, says she wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. She doesn't know any lawyers, but she's watched Judge Judy with her dad. She says she wants to make the world a better place. She's excited to learn more about Black history next year.
Ty isn't sure what he wants to be when he grows up, but says he's leaning into the sciences. He used to want to be a veterinarian, but not anymore. Perhaps he'll be a writer or a gardener, he says.
Marleigh dreams of being an astronaut. Her favorite subject is science.
“I just believe that there’s other life, like plants, that could survive on different planets," she says. "So I just want to see it for myself."