A break in the academic calendar didn’t stop thousands of Minneapolis public school students from filing into classrooms this week.

To avoid losing academic momentum over spring break, district staff have started offering lessons in core areas over the break which are designed to bolster students lagging academically. School officials call it “Spring Break Academy,” and since the program’s launch last year, the number of participating schools and enrollees has more than doubled.

This week, more than 4,000 students are enrolled in the program.

“It [helps] the kids who need that little extra push,” Bancroft Elementary teacher Mary Sjoberg said. “Then, they come back in April, ready, and they haven’t lost that week worth of teaching.”

The new program is part of a strong push by Minneapolis school officials to raise test scores by offering additional instruction outside the normal school schedule. Compared to the state’s percentage of students who tested at proficient levels, the city’s students tested 17 percent lower in both math and reading last year.

Former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson approved the plan for spring break classes in 2014, and despite her resignation in December, the district has continued her goal of boosting programming to supplement students’ typical school day and provide extra coursework.

The spring break program offers struggling students extra one-on-one attention and test preparation the entire week. The smaller classes, individualized lesson plans and hands-on approach, program leaders say, is a specialized opportunity for students to stay tuned up academically.

The weeklong learning program filled a need for makeup days last year when a series of severe winter storms closed Minneapolis Public Schools for days. The district rolled out the program at 13 sites, and because of its success, expanded it to 25 this year.

“One of the common complaints that teachers have is that we don’t have enough time,” said Lisa Hartmann, a leader of the program. “If we can have quality teaching [time] added … we absolutely can make a difference for kids.”

With growing interest, school officials say it will likely expand to include more schools and students in the coming years.

The program targets students who face a number of academic barriers that can hold them back from excelling academically, Sjoberg said. Those factors include lack of motivation, not knowing English or coming from a family with a low-income.

That’s the case at Bancroft Elementary in south Minneapolis, where almost half the school’s students are learning English and nearly 90 percent are on free or reduced lunch.

“When they’re coming in, and they’ve only been in the country [briefly], they don’t even think of themselves as not being proficient,” Sjoberg said. “They’re just learning English.”

For the spring break program, Bancroft Elementary schoolteachers led four-hour blocks of reading and math lessons, areas where the school’s test scores are sitting below the state’s average levels of proficiency. Those lessons are broken up by two hours of science experiments and activities outside.

More than 230 licensed teachers districtwide gave up their vacation time to lead the spring break classes, and the district paid $900,000 for the additional week of instruction.

Sjoberg said it was an easy decision to spend her break teaching because she didn’t have plans for the week anyway.

“I might as well help the kids and be here,” she said.

The program is geared toward students in need of extra help, but overachievers or students who don’t have another plan for the break are welcome, as well. Schools sent invites to students who are below proficient levels to participate earlier this year, but they didn’t turn down other students who wanted to opt in. The spring break classes can also be a good option for parents scrambling to find child care for the week.

Kim Galloway, mother of a 10-year-old who attended Spring Break Academy both years, said she has noticed her daughter’s improvements from taking the spring break crash course.

“It’s not only academics, but she gets social and emotional skills by going,” Galloway said. “She’s made great gains.”

Nine-year-old Demari Rogers said he enjoyed the extra chance to flex his math skills during the break. For Takhia Meloncon, 11, participating in activities like Spring Break Academy helps her avoid long days at home playing on her phone.

“It keeps me moving,” Rogers said.

 

Jessica Lee is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.