SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Thousands of students around the country are enrolled in summer programming for the first time, taking classes that go beyond reading and math.
Programs made possible by the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, providing nearly $122 billion to states and school districts over three years.
"What we knew, long before there was a pandemic, is that when a student is experiencing stress at home and coming into the classroom, you can't just expect that that student is going to flip a switch, and you know, be able to focus on reading and math," said Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified School Board.
Barrera says the influx of state and federal flooding is making summer enrichment programs accessible to all students.
“California has been underfunding its public schools for decades, and that means kids have missed out--missed out on programs like this that they’ve always needed," said Barrera. "Unfortunately, it took a pandemic to bring the kind of resources from the state government, the federal government that we need.”
The district's new summer programming, Level Up SD, features in-person classroom instruction and summer activities offered by dozens of nonprofits in communities across the city.
Barrera says it's free for families, thanks to a $31 million commitment by the San Diego Unified Board of Education.
“Making sure that our student's social-emotional and mental health is right at the top of our priority list, along with their academic success," said Barrera.
Guitars in the Classroom (GITC) is among the dozens of enrichment programs being offered to students.
“A lot of kids have really come alive the last couple of months. They love playing with their instruments, they love playing with their friends. You can just see the happiness that music brings to the classroom," said fourth-grade teacher Elise Samaniego.
“Coming back, I was scared," said fourth-grader Aneli Jensen, a GITC participant. “I haven’t seen anyone in so long it felt like I was going to be awkward! But it was actually really easy and really fun seeing all my friends.”
Equipped with a village of volunteers, nonprofits like GITC worked around the clock to get their summer programming up and running.
Volunteer Rodney Howard helped tune hundreds of ukuleles in a matter of weeks, organizing tuning parties to ensure the instruments were ready for students.
“It’s probably safe to say I tune anywhere from 800 to 1,000 a year," said Howard. "It’s kind of become a passion for me.”
When Howard began tuning five years ago, he didn't expect the retirement hobby would become his life's calling.
“It's not for everybody!" said Howard. "It can be a very boring, tedious, laborious task.”
The countless hours of tuning earned Howard the title of Tuning Archangel.
“These strings are susceptible to temperature changes, humidity changes. Some of them, you look at them wrong, and they go out of tune," he explained.
While some see hours of repetition, Howard sees the end goal.
"How they’re going to improve lives, enrich lives. That keeps me going," said Howard.
The district has secured enough funding to continue operating the enhanced summer learning program for at least two more summers.
“If we can say that our kids are achieving that, you know, that sense of belief in themselves and confidence in their ability to learn for the rest of their lives, then we've done our job," said Barrera.