COLUMBIA — With a large grin, Malachi Hughes-Gardner, 11, reclined in a cardboard chair he built during summer school this year. Malachi and other students made chairs capable of supporting their weight using only cardboard, glue and duct tape.
Friday was the last day of summer school, and the students at Lange worked to complete their final projects.
Across the hall from Malachi's class, which was called "Cardboard Engineering" and meant to teach teamwork and basic engineering principles, students cleaned their kitchens in "Cooking with Friends," in which students learned to make meals and serve them properly.
“The big payoff was when the kids got to make a full dinner and invite a friend to come and join them,” said Becky Baugh, who created the class and taught it at Lange this summer. Thursday was the dinner, Friday was the cleanup.
Cardboard engineering and cooking with friends were two of several new classes prepared by Columbia teachers for this year's summer school, the first the district has done without an outside company since 2003.
Due to a reduction in state funding, Columbia Public Schools decided not to use EdisonLearning, previously NewtonLearning, to oversee summer school, said Linda Quinley, chief financial officer for the district. Although exact numbers are not yet available, Quinley estimated $1.5 million in savings this year.
“We were looking to save money and make it more locally owned,” Jan Mees, president of the Columbia School Board, said.
In previous years, EdisonLearning provided the teachers with a class curriculum and supplies. This year, teachers built their own classes, often with their own students in mind.
“When teachers in Columbia write the courses, they have richer content,” Connie Dewey, the summer school principal at Lange, said.
Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools also made changes to their curriculum to expand on previously offered classes such as advanced courses and options to complete graduation credits, either to get ahead or make up for failing during regular school year. The addition of an ACT prep was new, as well as online courses in creative writing, personal finance and health.
“I think the motivation for students is the credits,” Ian Mette, summer school principal at Rock Bridge, said.
Attendance numbers were a concern from the beginning. Under EdisonLearning, students were rewarded with $100 gift cards for perfect attendance, but the school district is not allowed to offer financial incentives to students.
“The loss of the $100 gift cards did have an effect on attendance, but I think the students that are here are for the right reasons,” Dewey said.
Despite the shrinking attendance overall — 7,100 students this year compared to 7,700 last year — not all schools saw a decline. Hickman's attendance on the last day this year was 653 students; the final tally for last year was 515.
“I like the emphasis not being about the money. The kids seem more interested in learning," Marietta Monroe, summer school principal of Blue Ridge Elementary School, said.
When Superintendent Chris Belcher and the School Board approved summer school in April, there was no guarantee it would receive state funding. Budget cutbacks on the state level made summer school funding a possible target for trimming, but when the legislative session ended in mid-May, summer school money remained in the budget.
However, cutbacks were still required.
“(We) sharpened the pencil on the supply budget,” summer school director Mary Humlicek said.
In past years, EdisonLearning provided teachers with fully stocked kits of supplies, which they needed for their courses and which they were allowed to keep. This year, teachers do not get to keep leftover supplies for their classrooms in the fall. Also, at the start of summer school, some teachers had fewer supplies.
“The first week involved me running around town trying to find supplies,” Dewey said.
Blue Ridge kindergarten teacher Linda Koenig, who teaches fourth and fifth grades during the regular school year, had to rely on her colleagues for supplies and the public library for books. Still, Koenig said, summer school went well.
“They’re all still here, and it’s the second to last day,” Koenig said as her class of 21 kindergartners played and learned on Thursday.