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Whitefish Schools’ summer program looks to engage students in new ways

by WHITNEY ENGLAND
Whitefish Pilot | August 4, 2021 1:00 AM

The Whitefish School District put a twist on the definition of summer school this year.

For the first time, the district hosted a summer learning program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade which had morning and afternoon sessions that varied in focus to engage all students who attended.

The K-8 summer program was possible due to the district utilizing part of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds received from the federal government as part of COVID-19 relief packages sent to public schools over the last year.

Mornings have focused mainly on intervention in reading, writing and math, and the afternoons have been filled with enrichment activities, according to the summer program coordinators Jen Hilder and Kate Preston who noted that the program has experienced success in its inaugural launch.

Preston said over 200 different students participated in the program throughout all three sessions —- sessions were two to three weeks long and students could sign up for just the morning, afternoon or both.

Hilder mainly oversaw the morning sessions that were aimed at getting students caught up and specific intervention in core academic subjects. Although the morning session was more designed to teach academic subjects, teachers and staff were able to do so through many hands-on activities.

“In the morning the kids all meet together, K-8, and we do a community brain gym exercise time,” Hilder said. “We talk about brain research and how our brains are still growing, and how practicing skills in reading, writing, and math is going to help those neuropathways in our brain; how this practice is going to help them to do better in the future.”

She said other activities included a book club, interactive outdoor reading and spelling activities, and writing and math intervention programs with fluency games. In addition, the students would have outdoor game time — academic obstacle courses and a race that included reading, writing and math skills within the challenges as well as learning to cooperate with classmates.

“We really pack it all into two and a half hours,” Hilder said.

In the afternoon, Preston oversaw the session that included more enrichment activities and experiential learning opportunities. She says her personal favorite was an indoor campout — with temperatures nearing 100 degrees outside they had to get creative — where students and staff set up tents in the cafeteria, sang campfire songs and pretended to roast marshmallows.

Other activities included robotics, field trips to the Whitefish Trail, augmented reality, yoga and much more. Another highlight was weekly trips to the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship building at the high school for place-based lessons on outdoor and nature education led by high schoolers.

“This is something that has been unique to this program and I really admire the Whitefish High School interns that were hired to do this,” Preston said. “Their leadership and their joy in working with children has really helped mentor these children in the relationships they’re building.

“They’ve been able to plan and coordinate weekly activities for each grade level; things like nature journaling, planting, leaf rubbing and exploring Native American history trunks from Glacier National Park,” she added.

Preston also mentioned that the program was almost 100% free of screen time and she enjoyed seeing the kids learn through hands-on activities that inspired excitement and engagement. Both Hilder and Preston expressed interest in running the program again next year.

The summer school sessions ran consecutively from June 21 through the end of July.

The Whitefish School Board and district administration at a recent board meeting praised the summer program coordinators and all the staff involved to make it a success and disguise learning through fun activities.

“They have worked tirelessly to develop and coordinate this program, and we’re just excited with some of the outstanding things the kids are involved in,” Superintendent Dave Means said. “Very experiential opportunities are provided, field trips, as well as specific instruction in reading and math. Kids are showing up each day and engaged in learning.”

The district also held a summer school program at the high school level, as there is every summer. This year was focused on credit recovery and making up for classes missed due to learning challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. About 40 students attended the program at the high school.

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A group of students participate in a sensory activity during the Whitefish Summer Learning Program in July at Muldown Elementary School. (Courtesy photo)

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Whitefish students, from left to right, Harper Dauenhauer, Jewel Myers and Isabella Brooks work together in a hands-on project during the Whitefish Summer Learning Program in July at Muldown Elementary School. (Courtesy photo)

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Whitefish student Bryer Scott does a writing assignment outdoors during the Whitefish Summer Learning Program in July. (Courtesy photo)