With state money drying up, Salem-Keizer goes back to basics on summer programs

Thousands of Salem students got a chance to catch up on school work or practice their reading and math skills this summer, even with less state money available for summer camps and programs.

Oregon legislators for the past two years dedicated millions of dollars toward summer programs for the state’s students in an effort to help kids reconnect with school and make up for learning missed during the pandemic.

That money last year, about $7 million for the Salem-Keizer School District, funded a slate of camps focused on everything from stop-motion animation to gardening.

But no such funding was provided this year, leading some districts and community groups to scale back summer programs.

Without the money, the district now has about 10 fewer programs than last year, and more fun-focused offerings like culinary or robotics camps didn’t happen, said summer programs coordinator Nichole Spearman-Eskelsen.

Instead, offerings this year are more academic and targeted toward students more likely to need academic help and support, and look similar to pre-pandemic summer programs.

Some 14,500 kids are still enrolled in summer programs — about 500 fewer than last year. 

The district is instead drawing on federal money and different state grants to fund programs, Spearman-Eskelsen said.

Offerings included credit recovery classes for high schoolers who need to make up courses they failed and migrant summer school for students whose parents have moved in the past three years for a job in agriculture.

Elementary summer school

About 1,200 elementary schoolers who will be in first, second or third grade in the fall got a three-week chance to work on reading and math, alongside some science experiments and art projects.

The program was open to students attending the district’s 26 Title I elementary schools, a federal designation meaning the school has a high share of students from low-income families. Over half the district’s 42 elementary schools qualify.

“The goal of our program is to provide students with additional opportunities for practice in the classroom. And if somebody needs a little extra help, then provide that for them,” Nguyen said.

The program can also help prevent “learning loss,” when students forget what they learned during the previous school year over summer break.

Teacher Isai Rodriguez works with students on syllable sounds during Title I summer school at Hoover Elementary School on Thursday, July 27 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Any family could sign up for free.

At Hoover Elementary School in northeast Salem, incoming first grade students gathered around a table in the front of the classroom as bilingual teacher Isai Rodriguez helped them sound out words in Spanish, syllable by syllable.

He quizzed them in a mix of Spanish and English: “Cuál es the syllable en el principio, in the beginning?”

Students were tested in reading and math before and after completing the program, which ended the last week of July. Not every student took both tests, but those that did showed improvements. 

On average, students scored between one and three points higher on a 10-point math test after the program. Bilingual students generally showed more improvement in both reading and math, district data shows.

JumpStart Kindergarten returns

Another longstanding free summer program, JumpStart Kindergarten, begins Tuesday, Aug. 8. Every district elementary school is hosting a program, though a few will be held at other schools due to construction.

Families can still sign up students online or in person on Tuesday morning.

The free four-day program is for incoming kindergarten students, and is intended to get them used to school by showing them around, introducing them to teachers and doing fun activities.

More than 1,300 students had registered as of Friday, district spokeswoman Emily Reverman said.

Families can call their school for details or a schedule. Programs run through Friday, Aug. 11.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.