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Education

Kayaking, Mad Libs, and Greek History: Here's What Summer School Looks Like in Somersworth

Somersworth Summer School 1
Sarah Gibson
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Jamya Mercer shows off her completed Mad Libs assignment.

At Idlehurst Elementary School in Somersworth, 9-year old twins Jamya and Jennessa Mercer are huddled over their clipboards, crafting a Mad Libs story about camping. They’re here with three other students and three teachers, four days a week, for the next five weeks.

It’s a far cry from the virtual schooling they had much of this past year.

Somersworth Summer School
Sarah Gibson
Jannessa Mercer working on Mad Libs in summer school. The number of students in Somersworth's K-8 summer programs increased by about 50 percent this year.

“I had really hard work to do in third grade - it felt like I was in high school!” Jennessa says.

“Yeah,” Jamya chimes in. “It felt like we were in high school because our teachers gave us hard work and we sometimes couldn’t all do it together.”

Somersworth didn’t reopen its schools fully until May, after over a year of hybrid and remote learning. But now, buildings are bustling. Like many districts, the Somersworth summer school program this year is on steroids: more kids, more staff, more hours in the classroom, and more money to pay for it all.

The extra funding comes from federal COVID relief aid for schools to get students caught up on academics and social skills they lost out on during the pandemic. The Somersworth School District is spending about $200,000 of this federal aid on summer programs, including transportation for students, expanded outdoor and art activities, and salaries for staff sticking around this summer to teach.

Our number one priority is getting these children in school as much as possible.
Liza Cocco

“Our number one priority is getting these children in school as much as possible,” says Liza Cocco, the principal of Idlehurst Elementary School.“Even though [teachers] might be tired or at the end of their ropes, they had a couple weeks off, and they regrouped. They knew the importance and they stepped forward.”

For some students in the summer programs, July might feel more like summer camp than school.

Middle schoolers in Somersworth Youth Connection, a collaboration between the school district and Community Action Partnership of Strafford County, recently found themselves on the banks of the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth for a kayak lesson.

“There’s many fun adventures and lots of mistakes that happen along the way - but they’re good mistakes, not bad ones,” says 13-year old Kaela Rizkallah.

Maureen Jackman, who runs Somersworth Youth Connection, says she’s trying to keep the program mostly screen-free and fun enough that kids forget they’re learning.

And she’s hopeful that pandemic learning loss for these students is temporary.

“I think testing will totally show that there are some gaps, but I also think kids that are resilient enough,” she says. “They’re sponges; they absorb learning.”

But for high-schoolers trying to catch up this summer, there’s no escape from essays and tests.

In the Somersworth High School library, 16-year old Cheyanne Brushwood is sitting at a desk with her laptop open and a worksheet about Ancient Greece and Rome.

COVID and the Classroom
Sara Plourde
NHPR's COVID and the Classroom is a reporting project looking at the effects of the pandemic on New Hampshire's students, parents, teachers, and schools.

Cheyanne stayed remote her whole freshman year because of health concerns, and her grades suffered. Now that she’s vaccinated, she’s attending a credit recovery program at the high school.

“The first time I stepped into the building was last week,” she says. “It was definitely a challenge and weird because I’ve never been in the school.”

The credit recovery program has twice as many students as in previous years. In the course of two weeks, Cheyanne has made up almost all the work she was missing.

Now that she’s improved her grades, she hopes to join the volleyball team. And she made a friend in the credit recovery program who shares her love of Korean pop.

So summer school, she says, was actually kind of fun.