Summer Learning

3 Guidelines for Summer Learning in the COVID Era

Before any reports came out detailing the extent of the academic impact of the pandemic on students, education leaders were already looking to summer learning programs as a key intervention to help students make up for lost instructional time.

In Indianapolis, I had the opportunity to work with the United Way of Central Indiana (UWCI) and The Mind Trust to design and oversee a five-week long summer learning program. We started planning for what became the Indy Summer Learning Labs in February of 2021. 

Supported by $11 million in grants from the state, the program launched with 38 sites serving more than 2,800 students and employing more than 400 adults as educators, aides, and facilitators.

There are many ways to do summer learning well, and for funders who have already committed to running a summer learning program next year, I’m happy to discuss specific thoughts about how to structure a summer learning opportunity. But because every community has different needs, I’d like to share my biggest takeaways from the program, which could help guide funders looking to get involved in summer learning. 

1. Design the program around stakeholders’ needs, not funders ideas

I’ve written before about the importance of defining the problem with stakeholders on the ground; philanthropists have to listen to parents, school leaders, and community organizations to understand how these stakeholders experience the problem before designing a solution.

While we were on a quick timeline, we spent our first month speaking to community organizations that had been serving as Community Learning Sites in Indianapolis throughout the 2020-21 school year. We wanted to understand what went well, what didn’t, and what families needed from a summer learning opportunity. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to do more of this, because I think we could have done even more to tailor the program to families’ needs.


From the funders’ perspective, the biggest problem we wanted to address was the drop in standardized test scores after a year of disrupted education. But from families’ perspectives, academic learning was only part of a more nuanced problem.

For many families, lining up full-time childcare for their kids all summer long was a top priority. For others, flexibility with daily and weekly attendance was more important as they looked for ways to fit our program around their summer vacations and other activities.

Many families also placed a strong emphasis on fun programming. Yes, many students lost instructional time and have suffered academically throughout the pandemic. But for many kids, the past 18 months have also been full of instability, hardship, and loss, leading to significant emotional trauma. Families were looking for summer opportunities that gave their kids a chance to socialize, feel safe, and be kids again—with the hope that they might come out with improved mental health. 

Knowing all of these needs and desires before starting to design a solution leads to deeper impact and buy-in from all stakeholders.

2. Don’t wait for school districts to take the lead

Schools have had their hands full adapting to the constantly changing dynamics of the pandemic. In districts that didn’t already have formal summer learning programs, there was little to no extra capacity left to launch new initiatives like that. 

But summer school doesn’t have to happen in school buildings. More than 20 of our locations were community sites where smaller groups of students were able to learn virtually from licensed teachers while also participating in fun summer programming. In many cases, those community sites already had existing summer programs and were looking for ways to add high-quality academic programming, so it was a win-win situation.

Funders can’t afford to wait for overtaxed public services to take the lead during crises that demand an urgent solution. The collaboration between the United Way and The Mind Trust in Indianapolis was a great example of philanthropists providing more than just funding to tackle a problem. By using their resources to build infrastructure, capacity, and public will to solve the problem, funders were able to ensure that summer learning would happen this year, whether the schools were able to participate or not. As it turned out, many schools were still more than willing to offer their facilities and other services to support the effort. 

3. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good—especially in year one

We’re proud of the fact that achievement data from the Indy Summer Learning Labs indicates that many students made academic progress during the five-week program. But it was very much a pilot year with many lessons learned, and if our goal had been perfection, we likely would have postponed the program, and thousands of students would have missed out on the opportunity. We faced dozens of unexpected challenges throughout the summer, from struggling with virtual teaching technology to building budgets with 38 separate organizations, but we ultimately focused on doing the best we could for students and families, and our efforts yielded results.

Could the program have been bigger and better? Sure. But we essentially built a school district from the ground up in four months. If we hadn’t embraced uncertainty and committed to launching something, we wouldn’t have learned any of the lessons we learned. 

Effective philanthropy requires taking risks. Don’t let the distraction of a giant, flashy program pull you away from high-quality, smaller initiatives that could serve as great starting points. Maybe a multiple thousand student initiative isn’t within your financial or staffing capacity this year; but what is possible? Could you pilot a one-on-one tutoring program in partnership with a handful of community organizations and the local school district? Wherever you start, focus on building trust with your partners and laying the foundation for growth.

As we look ahead to the challenges our school systems will continue to face as the pandemic drags on, philanthropists must recognize the role they can and should play in designing and facilitating community-centered summer learning initiatives across the country.