IDEA Educator combats ‘summer slide” with enrichment program

William Corbit is a 2013 Teach for America corps member who is a Principal in Residence at IDEA Public Schools in Brownsville. In 2017, he founded Summer Odyssey, a summer enrichment program for IDEA students.

“Summer slide” is a real concern for students and parents. Can you share a bit about the dangers of “summer slide” as a driver for launching IDEA’s Summer Odyssey program?

We close achievement gaps and increase student academic ability from August to late-May, but then our students’ academic abilities plummet over the summer. This loss of learning, known as the “Summer Slide,” is a ubiquitous phenomenon that is easy to grasp. According to a Johns Hopkins study from 2007, nearly two thirds of the Achievement Gap (the difference in academic ability between high-income and low-income students) can be attributed to the “Summer Slide.”

We created IDEA’s Summer Odyssey program with the goal that it could help close achievement gaps for students and communities.

What year was it founded? How has it expanded since then?

Summer Odyssey was founded in the summer of 2017 at IDEA Brownsville. Last summer we expanded to two other sites (IDEA Weslaco Pike and IDEA Pharr). We hope to expand to other schools in other regions for next summer. The need is everywhere.

What grade levels can attend the Summer Odyssey program? How are they selected?

We primarily focus on rising 7th and 8th grade students. This is because middle school is a crossroads time for many students. Students are faced with new academic and social challenges that can unfortunately push students off the track to make it through college.

To build our programs, we begin by targeting students who we know would greatly benefit from the opportunity. We’ve had special education students, English language learners, and students who are critically low in math and reading. After our target students, we open the program to anyone. We’ve been fortunate to accept any student who has wanted to join.

“In the past, you have referred to Summer Odyssey as a “program of positivity.” Can you elaborate on this?”

We have the opportunity to craft the program to meet student needs beyond what is usually defined from a state test. We emphasize socioemotional learning (SEL), public speaking, collaboration, and other essential interpersonal skills. For example, students have been exposed to a variety of electives, such as: mock trial, drama, dance, Jovenes Fuertes (a program that builds students SEL capacities), team sports, and much more.

A strong culture depends on the interpersonal relationships among students and staff members, which is why we have prioritized time each day for Colleges to work on a spirit project for the end of the week. For example, for one “Spirit Friday” last summer kids and their homeroom Summer Teachers were pushed to act out a favorite Disney scene. I overheard one of our students say: “Mom, I can’t go to the beach. We’re going to be acting out ‘Finding Nemo,’ and my college needs me!”

Strong attendance and programs wouldn’t be possible without quality instruction, since more than half of the day is devoted to core content learning. Summer Teachers (who are current college students) go through a week of training on how to write lesson plans, build relationships, and manage classrooms. We use all of the training and evaluation materials that our IDEA teachers use during the regular school year. By setting a high academic bar for our Summer Teachers and students, we help foster a deeper sense of engagement and investment. When students tell us they are “so ready for 7th grade math,” as one student told me, we know that the program is working.

Can you share a bit about the path that led you to found and serve as the director for this program?

I joined Teach For America in 2013 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. Teach for America was an instrumental experience that put me on a path of instructional leadership and to start Summer Odyssey. Early in my Teach for America experience during summer institute training, I taught a remedial math course to students who had failed during the school year. Students certainly weren’t looking forward to spending their summers in school, but we had fun. I played basketball with my students in the morning, and tried to make my math class as engaging as possible. I made lasting relationships with students, and I realized that any educational experience can be fun and worthwhile.

Another aspect of my TFA experience that was valuable was being a part of a cohort of smart, hard-working young professionals dedicated to education. I’m in my 6th year at the same school at which I first taught, and I’m still living with other teachers from my corps. We’re great friends, and we’ve pushed each other in our professions. For example, my roommates were an integral part of creating Summer Odyssey. Stephen Lopez (2013) and Jacklyn Verdin (2012) were founding instructional coaches for the inaugural summer, and Claire Hoffmann (2013) was one of the original curriculum writers. We joke that we have a Silicon Valley state of mind and way of living, but for education instead of tech. This network and the brilliant students we work with have helped us to build a foundation for an ideal school program.

Teach for America is a national non-profit organization committed to the idea that one day, all children will attain an excellent education. To this end, the organization partners with communities to inspire the next generation of leaders to address unequal educational opportunities that fall along the lines of race and class. They begin this lifelong work with an initial two-year commitment to teach in some of the nation’s most underserved schools. In this series, we spotlight corps members and alumni working with students in the Rio Grande Valley.