For many families, spring break isn't a chance to go on a tropical vacation, but a time to figure out what their kids will do all day while parents are working.

"Not as many students go on vacation as in the past," said Maggie Gleeson, a fourth-grade teacher in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district. "Their parents are working usually and they don't have a week off like their child does."

The parents of 80 elementary school students in Eagan didn't have to worry. Their kids spent spring break brushing up on math skills, gardening and building bat houses, many under the guidance of their regular classroom teachers.

Many students said they enjoy "spring break school" because they learned new things and got to work on creative projects they might not have time for during the regular school year.

"I like learning about how to engineer and about how bats hibernate," said fourth-grader Chynna Johnson.

"I think it's fun that you don't have to do normal school stuff, you do project stuff," added Paschal Kinsala, also in fourth grade.

Spring break school, now in its fifth year at Pilot Knob STEM Magnet School in Eagan, serves first- through fourth-graders for six hours a day and includes lunch.

Some students are invited to attend because they need extra help, but Gleeson said she tells all her kids they can come if they want.

"It's a lot more instruction time, and you do get to know them better," she said. "It's a lot of fun."

More learning time

Principal Tom Benson noted that American students spend fewer days in school than their peers in other countries, so opportunities like this provide more learning time. Since most spring break classes have 10 to 15 students, kids also benefit from the extra attention, he said.

"Our theory behind it is if you need extra help or support to improve in an area, we'll provide that," said Benson.

The program is paid for with funding from the state that is intended to help students who need extra help in school. Teachers — there are six of them — choose to participate and are paid an hourly rate.

This year's themes were math skills and gardening, since the school has a large garden on-site. The group planned to build something, either bird houses or bat houses. On Thursday, the last day, everyone went bowling.

Another benefit for English Language Learner students is extra time to read, Gleeson said.

All students must take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) in the spring, so the program is also a chance to prepare for those tests. Kids get extra practice on skills that will probably be on the tests, like long division for Gleeson's fourth-graders.

"[My parents] thought it would be perfect for me," said Hunter Rotan, who moved here from Arkansas and wants to be ready for the MCAs, which he has never taken before.

This year, the district also offered winter break school for the first time, building on the success of spring break school.

A video game alternative

On Tuesday afternoon, fourth-graders in Gleeson's class were busy creating structures that could withstand natural disasters. Built with drinking straws and wooden sticks and placed inside a shoebox, the structures had to be 30 centimeters tall and include elements like platforms, pyramids and columns.

The goal was that the towers would survive tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, simulated by a fan, weights and the wobbling of the table.

The project was fun, but also educational because it used engineering concepts, said Gleeson.

"I think [spring break school] is great because it gives the kids something that's directed … and educational at the same time," said Margaret Dixon, whose granddaughter is Gleeson's class.

Her granddaughter, Jaelyn Hemsworth, said the school is good for kids because it keeps them thinking about academics.

"Usually kids stay home during spring break and play video games and they lose their thoughts of math and science," Hemsworth said. "[This school] gives kids creative minds … so they can make their own invention someday and they can get smarter as they grow."

Benson said it's important that the program is relaxed and includes creative activities.

"If it starts looking too much like regular school, it might lose its appeal," he said.

Each year, he said, he insists he's not going to run spring break school this time around. Instead, he imagines, he'll take a vacation himself.

But he always ends up holding the program anyway, he said, in part because kids often ask him about it.

"When kids come back to school, I hear them talking to their friends. They're often telling them how much fun they had," he said. "Generally once kids are here, they really have a great time."