How this superintendent is helping students avoid the ‘summer learning slide’

In this video, District Administration’s Micah Ward sits down with Dr. Don Killingbeck, superintendent at the Hemlock Public School District, to reflect on the school year and learn how he’s creating meaningful experiences for students this summer.

Summer is finally here, and while students enjoy their well-deserved break, this superintendent is giving them—and their parents—the opportunity to avoid the so-called “summer learning slide.”

In this video, District Administration’s Micah Ward sits down with Dr. Don Killingbeck, superintendent at the Hemlock Public School District in Michigan to reflect on the school year and learn more about how he’s creating meaningful experiences for students this summer.

Note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

In terms of student achievement, what did this school year look like for Hemlock Public Schools?

Killingbeck: For us, it was a great year. Micah, hopefully, you’ll appreciate this, but I’m also a dad. I have four kids, but two are school-aged children. I’ve got a sixth-grader and a junior in high school. Do you know when was the last time they had a normal school year?

Ward: Around four years ago, I’d say.

Killingbeck: My sixth-grader was in second grade when he last had a normal school year. So he went to third, fourth and fifth grades with kind of an abnormal school year. I think for many, that’s something to keep as a frame of reference. This is really the first normal school year that our students have experienced. And so have our staff.

During that same time, we’ve had a lower attrition rate with staffing. Our staff is aging and people are retiring. So there are some staff that this is their first normal school year with us! I have a middle school principal who was hired during the pandemic and this was his first normal year.

But there’s a lot going on for us in the background in terms of student achievement. We had a great year. Lots of learning. A very normal school year.

We did implement a new math program, very excited about that. But we also did a lot of work in the background. Our teachers, our principals did a lot of work. Our support staff supporting kids in their success, as well as having great parents and a great community that come together to really see through that education, is a top priority.

We know there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning, but it also requires a targeted approach. As a leader, what steps do you take to produce meaningful results in terms of academics?

Killingbeck: As a leader and a researcher, I believe that we should use research-based instruction and research-based materials. Micah, are you a boater? Have you driven a boat by chance?

Ward: I’ve ridden in a boat, but I’ve never driven one myself.

Killingbeck: When you’re on a boat and you’re coming into the harbor, there are the poles that guide you. There might be 10 poles, but you want to see that one to make sure you’re in line with the channel. That assures you that there’s a channel below you. As an instructional leader, I think of curriculum and student achievement and those kinds of things in the same way.

You have three pillars and you’re trying to make sure they’re all lined up together. Aligning curriculum and making sure we know what students are supposed to learn. What are the standards? What’s the expectation? As a school leader and as a school system, it’s our priority to make sure we have aligned resources. We ensure our teachers and students have things that are helpful in getting that curriculum taught.

Aligned curriculum, aligned resources and aligned instruction. As a district leader, those are the three things that I’m looking for.

From a top-down leadership perspective, what is your message to principals to make sure they buy into that approach?

Killingbeck: I think the message is that it’s never top-down. It’s bottom-up. We’re focused on student experience, student experience, and student experience. At the end of the day, if you provide an aligned curriculum, aligned resources and aligned instruction and you’re not reaching the kids, what does that matter? We really focus on making sure that our students’ and staff’s experience is high quality by meeting their needs.

One thing that we’ve done is conduct internal proposals. We asked our staff, “If you could do anything in your classroom this semester, what would it be? And how can we help?”

I think when you ask questions like that, you open the door for bigger things to happen.

What opportunities is your district providing students to make sure they mitigate the risk of the summer learning slide?

Killingbeck: The longer the summer, the more chance of having a summer slide. Research shows, I think, it’s anywhere after eight weeks you see that summer slide start to compound. But short summers aren’t necessarily popular in Michigan. We have brutal winters! Everybody wants to be outside and enjoy the nice weather, and we understand that. We want to be realistic as well. But we provide a couple of different things.

We provide what I call credit recovery models. Students can work on the credits they lost. At the secondary level, if a kid was deficient by 10% in their class to earn credit then they come to summer school and receive a list of assignments for that. Typically, it’s an online program that we’ll use. From there, they’ll do that work and then they’ll earn the credit.

At the younger levels, we look at a jump-start model. This year, we’re doing two things. We’re doing what you’d think of as a more traditional recovery model. For our kids who are at risk or those who have struggled with learning, we brought them in—Micah, school got out on Friday. When do you think we brought them in?

Ward: Monday?

Killingbeck: Monday! So they’re here for two weeks doing those interventions, but they’re also doing fun things because school cannot be boring. When you think about a young student, what are we competing with?

Ward: Mainly their phones, if I had to guess.

Killingbeck: Their phones, all of their apps, TikTok, the rest of the social media—all those kinds of things are competing. We can’t do business like usual. We have to be creative and engaging. Students have to want to be here. That’s not easy work. If it was, anybody would be doing it.

We want kids to really buy in and be part of their own learning. We want them to own it.

You mentioned in previous conversations that you ran summer camps using stimulus funding. Can you talk about those and how you used those funds to create meaningful experiences for students?

Killingbeck: It was part of even a pre-Covid and we didn’t get to it until the Covid era. But it was workforce money that we received through the state. We used them to create STEM  and manufacturing camps. We actually hosted them at our school for the whole county.

They were high-interest, high-engaging and very hands-on-type camps. The funding isn’t available for us this year, but Micah we’re committed as a school district to providing that world-class opportunity for students. so we’re going to find a way. In 2024, we’re bringing those back. We’re going to do something along those lines to make sure kids have that opportunity during the summer.

What are you excited about this upcoming school year?

Killingbeck: I’m so excited about this next school year not because of the work we’ve done over these last three months and the previous years. I’m excited because we’ve been baking this for 10 years.

We’ve constantly updated our strategic plan that outlines what we should be working on. We’ve also worked with our architect and designed a master plan for our district. I think it’s the first time our district’s had something that you can put your fingers on, touch and see and say, “This is where we’re going. This is what it looks like. This is what the future looks like.”

So, we’ve got a strategic plan and a master plan, but we’ve also got district goals. All of these things are converging this summer. We’ve got so many great things going on. For example, we’re changing the traffic flow for both of our elementary schools.

We have two more projects that we’re working on. We’re working on expanding our STEM center by adding a couple of classrooms and a lab. Super excited about that. Another thing, we’re like 73rd out of 83 counties for health and wellness across our state. So what we’re trying to do is build a field house. It’s going to cost about $2.5 million. We’ve got to raise capital. And what we’re going to do is bring the outdoors indoors during the winter. We’re going to try and provide a space where kids are active because we know it’s going to improve their physical well-being, their mental well-being and their sense of community and engagement. It impacts so many things, including school safety.

I don’t know if you can tell the level of passion I have, but I’m very passionate and very excited about the next school year here at Hemlock Public School District.