For students who fall behind academically, summer can be a time to catch up before the next school year begins.
But it's hard for some families to fit summer school classes into their schedules.
This summer, Minnesota's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, is trying something new — summer classes online. The district hopes to help students catch up on their math and reading, and — over the lazy days of summer — retain what they've already learned.
For Andrew Larrabee, 12, summer school is in session right at the dining room table at his home in Coon Rapids. It's late afternoon and Larrabee is starting an online math lesson. It's part of the Anoka-Hennepin School District's Virtual Summer Learning program.
"To estimate the sums and differences of the fractions..." Larrabee reads.
This is the first time the district has offered the six-week program. It's runs through the end of July and is for students going into the seventh grade. About 600 students are enrolled, 20 percent of the district's incoming cohort of seventh-graders.
Larrabee has attention deficit disorder and has taken previously summer classes in a classroom. He prefers the online version.
"They're easier to focus on because there's not many distractions like in summer school. People could be messing around," Larrabee said. "This is easier because it's quiet."
For his mom, Kelly Larrabee, online classes fit nicely into a schedule filled with summer camps, vacations and trips to the swimming pool.
"It's summertime. It's fun. It's laid back. Its easy," she said. "We fit it in when we can."
And she says taking summer reading and math classes online seems to fit Andrew's learning style.
"He can go at his own pace, which is one of the things that I really like. He's not pressured to, in 20 minutes, he has to have a test done. If it takes him a half an hour, it's OK," she said.
Larrabee hopes the online summer program helps her son retain what he learned in sixth grade, and gives him a bit of a boost as he heads into seventh grade.
The goal of the program is just that: to keep students from losing what they learned during the school year, forcing them to relearn it in the fall. Educators call it summer learning loss, or the summer slide.
Testing by the Anoka-Hennepin district shows as many as three-quarters of middle schoolers score lower in math in the fall than the spring, and reading skills for just over half of students take a tumble over summer break.
The biggest challenge for the online program could be simply to convince students to use it. There's no consequence for not doing well or skipping lessons in favor of video games or hanging out with friends.
Aaron Doering, an associate professor of learning technologies at the University of Minnesota, said motivation is at the heart of any successful online learning program.
"We have to go back to the basics of how we design that learning environment. How is it that the learning environment is going to motivate the learners to come back into the environment?" Doering said. "They have so many choices out there, why are they going to go back into this content management system and be motivated to learn?"
The best motivation in this case just may be Jill Deden, the teacher in charge of the summer learning program. From her computer at Coon Rapids Middle School, Deden can monitor how much work each student is doing.
"Here's the duration they worked on that. So this one... 29 minutes, and they completed it at 12:52 p.m."
Deden tracks students to make sure they're completing the seven-hours weekly of online lessons they promised when they signed up for the program.
"If they haven't been doing much I call or email the parent and say, "They've missed a lot of time so they need to keep working,' " Deden said. "Just a lot of encouraging words helps."
Officials in the Anoka-Hennepin district say they'd like to expand online course offerings next year if this summer's experiment is a success. This fall, students who took the summer online courses will be tested and their scores compared to students who did not take classes.