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After setting out this summer to help students who struggled with learning losses in the pandemic, St. Paul Public Schools on Tuesday reported some academic gains amid the usual mix of field trips and enrichment activities.

High school students earned 19,245 credits during the past three months, more than three times that of a year ago and a 40% increase over the non-pandemic summer of 2019, school board members learned Tuesday.

The credit recovery effort worked out especially well for 180 students: They ended up notching enough credits to graduate during summer session, said Adam Kunz, director of the district's office of digital and alternative education. He recalled a graduate speaking of the value of finally being in a classroom with others for a full 6½-hour day.

"That was missing when she was in the virtual space during the school year," he said.

Jackie Turner, the district's chief operations officer, signaled in the spring that a more intensive summer was ahead. Students would spend more time "on task," she said. Programs and courses would be offered over a greater length of time. In the end, opportunities were made available to students of all ages, and engagement increased for many.

But needs were perhaps greatest for high schoolers — as evidenced by declines reported in the fall.

Then, the state's second-largest district said students were failing more than one-third of high school classes at the midpoint of the first quarter of 2020-21 when kids still were in distance learning and months from a return to classrooms. Students can recover credits after hours, but the summer format gave them the chance to spend more time on a given subject, doubling their credit-earning power, officials said.

Overall, summer school participation in St. Paul was down from 2019, with 13,881 students served this summer compared with 19,040 two years ago. But retention was high, with about 90% of students sticking with their respective programs at each of the elementary, middle school and high school levels, the district said.

Seventh- and eighth-graders went to Highland Park and took part in traditional summer fare like field trips. They also were introduced to new "culturally responsive music courses" in guitar, piano and digital music.

In the elementary schools, 20 phonics teachers were brought in to provide small group instruction to kindergartners and first- and second-graders. The district said multilingual students had a 90% passing rate on one reading assessment.

The Children's Defense Fund Freedom School, which is part of the district's community education program, also gave Black male students opportunities to recover high school credits and develop as leaders.

"Uplifting and inspiring," board member Zuki Ellis said Tuesday of the Freedom School program.

Officials say they plan to expand programming next summer to include more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) offerings for kindergartners through fourth-graders and more project-based learning. They are committed, too, they say, to ensuring all programs are in air-conditioned buildings after some challenges due to the summer heat wave.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109