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In-person summer school is a welcome change from online classes for some Anchorage students

Collette Roth teaches a science class to middle school students during a summer session at Dimond High School on June 8, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The 30 minutes between first period and lunch is 16-year-old Daniel Torres’ favorite part of summer school.

Middle and high school students fill the Dimond High School gym, swinging badminton rackets and playing pickup basketball. Some students sit across the perimeter of the gym floor and on bleachers, reading books and scrolling through their phones.

“Honestly, chilling with my friends and having time in class ... and this gym period is the best part of it,” Torres said Tuesday.

Torres is going into his junior year and taking two classes at Dimond High during the Anchorage School District’s first summer school block, which runs through the end of the month. For one of his classes, he’d received an incomplete during the regular school year, and now he’s trying to get a better grade.

Daniel Torres sits in the Dimond High School gym during a summer session of school on June 8, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

That’s one of the primary goals of summer school, said deputy superintendent Mark Stock: for students — some of whom “may have had challenges at home” — to retake classes and improve their grades.

“We chose to give incompletes with the assumption that if they would come into summer school and work at it, then they had a chance to go and get an actual A, B or C” grade, Stock said. “Some are taking it for grade improvement and some are trying to remove an incomplete, which is an improvement.”

A February report from the district shows F-letter grades increased 3.22% compared to the 2019-20 school year, with D-letter grades increasing by 2.67%, as the pandemic upended K-12 education and in-person learning.

Stock said there are 7,534 students enrolled in the district’s first summer school block, including 3,500 K-5 students and another 1,979 middle and high schoolers attending in person.

“We’ve recruited families who are behind more than other students,” Stock said.

An additional 2,055 students in sixth through 12th grade are attending summer school virtually, Stock said.

In a non-pandemic year, the school district would typically offer 750 summer school seats — only for high school students — with another 1,000 spots in iSchool, the online option at the time.

In April, the district projected over 10,500 total seats would be available this summer as part of an effort to help students who experienced challenges during the pandemic.

Stock expects block two, which runs July 12 through Aug. 6, to be much smaller, especially since the district usually offers just one block.

Felicity Barton, left, and Azrael Thomas talk outside Dimond High School during a lunch break of summer session on June 8, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

“For me, I love (summer school). It’s just like a little sneak peek into what next year might be again,” Torres said. “Getting back to normal after COVID and getting to have this free time and lunch … overall, I like it.”

Summer school is happening at multiple sites across the district. Imtiaz Azzam — a principal who typically teaches at Service High School — is in charge of Dimond’s summer high school program, and Jim Bell is running the middle school program. He said there are more than 310 students enrolled at “some point and time during the day with part-time students” but estimates 289 students attending period one and 209 students attending period 3.

Elementary school students are at summer school four days a week while middle and high school students attend classes Monday through Friday.

“The way I see things happening is that every single kid wants another opportunity to succeed,” Azzam said. “You see it, you feel it, and you just need to say, ‘OK, I believe you can do it. Let’s just do it together.’ ”

For 17-year-old Kemauri Taylor, in-person summer school is “better than doing online school.” It was hard for him to turn in work on time, he said.

He’s currently taking math statistics and English.

“Online school was not good at all, and it really messed me up,” Taylor said. “So being back in school, I’m doing better with my work right now.”

Some students are seeing summer school as an opportunity to make friends.

Emerie Randall, who will be a sophomore in fall, works in math class during the summer session at Dimond High School on June 8, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Emerie Randall and Nicholas Sean Erasmo met while attending classes last week.

“I might (transfer to Dimond) because of her,” Erasmo said. “My other school, I won’t have anybody, but I’ll have her.”

Erasmo, a soon-to-be-senior, said he’s catching up and retaking algebra this summer. It’s easier for him to focus on school face-to-face than at home.

“I live in a big household, so it was kind of hectic,” Erasmo said. “My sister would come barging in and interrupt me, my brother would play loud music. ... I once had to do class doing the dishes.”

Randall already attends Dimond and is going into 10th grade. She said school from home was a new experience but being around so many people now and having to interact with them is overwhelming.

Nicholas Sean Erasmo works in math class at Dimond High School's summer session on June 8, 2021. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Last year “was one of the easiest years because I didn’t have to see people. ... It’s hard to focus on myself when I’m around other people,” Randall said.

Randall isn’t the only student who will miss online learning: 14-year-old Shayna Arnold said it was easier for her to keep up with online school.

“I could just get it done and then I could just go on with my day,” Arnold said. “I’m really fidgety, so in class, I can’t really sit down — so I get distracted really easily.”

This summer, Arnold is taking language arts and social studies with her friends Maya Meyer and Special Sutton, who are both soon-to-be eighth-graders.

Sutton, on the other hand, is eager to leave online learning behind her.

“My computer would always glitch out, or it was dead, or I couldn’t find out the codes,” Sutton said.

She likes summer school. Her teachers are funny and cool, Sutton said.

“It almost feels like going to regular school.”

Multimedia journalist Marc Lester contributed reporting.

[Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Anchorage School District deputy superintendent Mark Stock said that some students enroll in summer school for “grade improvement,” not “great improvement.”]