Transforming summer school as a way to get ahead

For Caitlin Finerty, a student finishing her freshman year at Bloomfield Hills High School, summer school means being able to take choir next fall — even though she's already completed her music and arts courses.
This summer she's enrolled in an economics course online, a requirement in her school's curriculum. But Finerty is also enrolled in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, meaning her schedule is already pretty challenging this fall. But because she’s taking economics over the summer, she can spread out some of her tougher courses. 
"It doesn't have to be tied to a credit recovery situation where somebody is taking something during the summer because they weren't successful during the traditional school year," says Michigan Virtual University President & CEO Jamey Fitzpatrick. "Summer courses can be fun."
Though some parents may have a hard time believing it, students like Finerty are starting to agree. And even if "fun" doesn't necessarily apply to taking classes like economics, the advantages for Finerty make it worth it.
"There are a few required graduation classes that do not fit into the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme," she says, "so I thought the best way to get them finished was over the summer."
While many are using summer courses to strategically get traditional curriculum courses out of the way like Finerty, others are exploring journalism, archeology, art history and more. MVU alone averages between 4,000 and 5,000 enrollments during the summer semester. That's a lot of kids in summer school — and they're reaping the benefits that come from it.
Going "credit forward"
Who is a part of this new wave of summer students? Some are indeed the traditional summer course candidates who are retaking classes in which they didn't succeed during the school year. But many summer students are what Michigan Virtual Schools calls "credit forward" students, who are working ahead.
 "A lot of students at the high school level are challenged by how many courses they can take during a given term," Fitzpatrick says. "If they're involved in sports, band or choir, squeezing courses in can be a challenge."
In addition to the academic advantages motivating Finerty, the opportunity to graduate early is appealing to college-bound spring athletes who want to attend college and start with the team one season early. And then there are career-focused students who want to explore areas of vocational interest.
"We offer things like film studies and art appreciation," says MVS Instructional Manager Shannon Smith. "Those personal interest classes can be a great opportunity for students to work toward things they're interested in doing for a career in the future."
A connected summer break
Whether they're taking courses not offered by their local school or simply getting standard curriculum courses out of the way, Fitzpatrick says the online format in the summer is ideal for a variety of reasons.
For instance, just a few days after Finerty’s semester ends at Bloomfield Hills High School, she starts her online courses. But then she's going to golf camp. And later in the summer semester, she's planning a road trip in California. But because of the ability to work at her own pace, none of those things are a problem. 
"I'll probably work in California at least one hour a day," she says. "But because we'll be on the road so much, it won't be a problem."
Transportation can also be a challenge for summer students who normally rely on the school bus to get to classes. Online courses eliminate the need for them to navigate public transit or make other arrangements.
Plus, says Smith, the classes are completed in 10 weeks rather than the traditional 18, which can be a real benefit for some learners.
"That can help a student feel more motivated to focus, because they know they can get it done in a quicker fashion," she said. "It is a scaled up level of work, but is speeding you up in your school year."
Scholastic success during the summer
Even with all the advantages of credit forward summer courses, there is still one challenge: Students just aren't used to taking classes during the carefree summer.
"With flexibility we know there's a chance that procrastination may dominate," says Fitzpatrick.
And while they may be used to having a dedicated hour at school to work on online courses with a mentor, during the summer it's all on the student to stay on pace.
Success is all about taking the right approach, says Smith. She suggests enlisting parents to check in on their student's progress throughout the course, and having kids pay close attention to the pacing guide their teachers give them at the beginning of the semester.
"A student going to Florida for a week in July might fall a little bit behind that pacing because they've been doing more vacation activities," she says. "But they know what they need to do to catch up when they get back."
The best route to success, Fitzpatrick and Smith agree, is for students to stick to as regular a schedule as possible during the summer semester — such as working at particular times of day or days of the week. Finerty has some built-in accountability. Because she has friends taking the same summer course, they plan to get together weekly to work.
While sticking to a routine during the summer may be new for some students, the ability to take more electives during the school year, or get ahead in their education with Advanced Placement or dual enrollment courses, making the adjustment is more than worth it.
From getting ahead to exploring future career options, summer school is sounding a lot more enticing for high school students in Michigan.
This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University
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