Summer has arrived, and with it, the opportunity to rethink schooling. Last week the New York Times highlighted a number of retooled summer schools that are looking beyond traditional compulsory summer school models by offering field trips and extracurricular activities in addition to classroom and online coursework. A few weeks back, Education Week highlighted a similar trend in new summer school programs that are using learning labs to expand offerings to students for both remediation and enrichment by pairing Math and English classes with field trips, elective arts courses, and outdoor activities. We’ve noted before that using online learning for summer school could have disruptive potential. Summer offers a unique time when parents and districts worried about learning loss may be looking for cheaper, easier options than full-time classes or tutors.

What struck me, however, was how the summer school programs garnering the media’s attention sounded more like summer camp than summer school. What differentiates school from camp? Perhaps it has to do with each institution’s relationship to the summer season and the kids it serves: school officials see summer months as a potential catalyst for students losing ground or as struggling students’ last chance at passing a course. On the other hand, camps see summer as a time of fun and freedom, where kids exert a rare degree of control over their lives and schedules.

In other words, camp is camp because it’s not school and because it must prove as much to campers. This in turn reinforces our cultural understanding that school itself is, well, not fun, freeing, or in the hands of students. Is this dichotomy an inevitability of our academic calendar?

Customers hire different products for various jobs to be done in their lives. Consider some of the different things that we as a society typically hire summer school and summer camp to do respectively:

We hire summer school to:
–       Remediate students to reach proficiency goals
–       Recover credits to advance students by grade level
–       Provide an opportunity to get ahead or out of credits
–       Babysit

We hire summer camp to:
–       Offer fun activities or adventures
–       Foster independence (e.g., sleep-away camp)
–       Provide a change of scenery or expand horizons
–       Hone hobbies (sports, arts, etc.)
–       Babysit

Although both have worthy ends, even the most studious among us have to admit that camp would sound preferable to any kid in her right mind. Unlike summer school where we measure performance in terms of seat time and passing grades, camp’s value proposition consists of keeping children engaged, happy, and entertained. The first “back to nature” camps where upper-middle class boys frolicked in canoes and forts offered freedoms that their prep schools never afforded them. Some modern urban camps take this concept even further, like Bay Area-based Steve and Kate’s Camp, where campers have complete control over how they spend their days and choose from a wide range of activities. It’s also worth noting that camps devoted to serving kids’ expectations for summer fun don’t have to be devoid of academic content or learning opportunities: Khan Academy’s Discovery Learning Lab is one example of bringing rich academic content inside a summer camp model.

So what if we considered the jobs of summer school from the student’s perspective as well? Especially during the summer, students are primed to demand a more diverse array of courses and activities. What’s encouraging about the schools that the New York Times and Education Week highlighted is that these programs appear to treat the students as their customers.

Although every school day may not include archery and a campfire, summer school classrooms would be wise to borrow from summer camp’s seasonal and child-centric premise. One way of moving toward a student-centric model may be using online learning. Online courses are an affordable way to offer content or classes that students’ schools may not offer during the school year. Also, by the very nature of software, achievement can be integrated with the delivery of content in ways that are tailored to each individual student and can help students feel successful every day while they learn. This can also free up time and resources to find offline activities that complement online curriculum, geared toward fun, freedom, and self-guided exploration.

Summer seems like a good time to test these approaches. We shouldn’t ignore the fear that kids’ brains will atrophy, but student-centric summer school programs might address that concern while managing to attract and retain more and different students who aren’t ready to relinquish their summer freedom. And if we manage to put the summer back in summer school, what might that mean for the rest of the school year?