The Creative Problem Solving Academy: Summer Remediation Done Differently

The Power of AND. Here at Garnet Valley we have bought into the power of AND.  With the deluge of data, testing, scores, growth measures, etc…it is easy to get caught teaching to the test. While we have heard time and time again that engaging students with ‘best practices’ are one of the most effective ways to help with test scores, many of us still tend to get into ‘PSSA’ Test Prep mode weeks before the big state exams.

In reality, rather than this disjointed, uninspiring focus on packets, p
ackets, packets,
the answer lies in making sure that the content and skill transfer expected by a particular courses standards should be the backbone of the program and should be embedded throughout.   

Wait, isn’t that just test prep?  The answer lies on how the skills and content are delivered.  It’s pretty obvious that if we don’t connect to the students personally, socially-emotionally, as people first, we won’t get them intellectually.


How then, do we do this?  It starts with getting to know students’ interests and connect the learning to these as much as we can, providing as much choice as we can, and thinking outside the box to strategically connect the critical thinking, reading, writing, and analysis skills expected of them to hands on, engaging activities.

Once we began talking about this possibility and the power of AND, as a district we started to develop learning experiences like our Creative Problem Solving Academy, which has helped us to reimagine and reinvent how we help ‘at risk’ students transition from our elementary schools to our middle school…and which was recently featured on Google for Education’s Transformation Center Hub. As we discussed structures for this type of learning experience, we figured we’d start with the one of the ‘worst’ of the traditional models of instruction we drag students through..Summer Remediation.  Our thought was, if it can work here, it can work anywhere! 

Our district goal areas include: student achievement, professional learning, management of systems, hiring the best and brightest, and fiscal responsibility.  In order to support these goals, the Creative Problem Solving Academy had to be student centered, grounded in data, standards aligned, project based, and very different than anything the students had experienced in the past.

So….What is the Creative Problem Solving Academy?

“If you want to prepare kids for the reality of life in an intensely competitive economy, then you must look beyond the classroom….[you must look for] exciting and doable ways to bring the ideas of the best creative minds from around the world into your class.” -Dan H. Pink, Author of Drive and To Sell Is Human.  

The Creative Problem Solving Academy is a real world, project based summer remediation academy in which students use strategies and tools to practice and apply numerous skills in Mathematics and English Language Arts to analyze, evaluate, design and create school improvement plans.  *click the Creative Problem Solving Academy for a full Curriculum Map in UbD2.0 format

These plans are first presented to a panel of Middle School and Central Office administrators for approval, then, working with the district Supervisor for Maintenance and the Building Principal, implemented in a number of school improvement projects.

This standards driven program was built to align with a combination of select standards from the Pennsylvania Core Standards for Mathematics and Pennsylvania Core Standards for English Language Arts, the National Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition and the International Society for Technology in Education standards.  

This academy helps students with a number of important areas required for a successful transition: the social-emotional component of transitioning to a new environment by practicing a growth mindset; Future Ready Skills & Competencies such as innovation, collaboration, and independence; mathematical skills such as ratios, measurement and working with data; and 21st Century ELA/Literacy skills such as information and digital literacy, and research & rhetoric in real world situations.

The  Creative Problem Solving Academy fulfills the 8 aspects of Project Based Learning:

*adapted from Michael Gorman’s 8 essential elements of PBL


Why and How Did The Academy Come About?

In November 2014, a group of administrators (Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum Supervisors, Middle School & High School Assistant Principals) got together to discuss Summer Programs for our students.  

The purpose of our committee was to:

  • understand the needs of our students in regard to remediation, acceleration, and enrichment
  • brainstorm and determine appropriate course offerings and programming
  • understand contractual and employment issues associated with implementing a summer program
  • understand how summer programming would impact our facilities
  • determine the implementation and communication process
  • present the findings and recommendations to the School Board.

During the process the we found that the district’s remediation opportunities varied and were disorganized. At the high school they included in-person programs for students who did not pass the Keystone State exams, as well as options for students to use outside vendors or programs for remediation. The Middle School has an Extended School Year program for our Special Education population, but for our regular education students who struggle we had very little.

This need was further highlighted by Middle School state testing data, as well as feedback from the counselors, which showed a real need for both ELA and Math remediation for incoming sixth graders.

It was therefore decided that the High School would continue to refine its offerings, but our group’s main focus would be on developing an engaging, meaningful, and rigorous summer remediation program for the middle school that:

  • Addressed the needs of our most at risk students
  • Acknowledged the 6th grade “hidden curriculum”
  • Developed student leadership capacity and skills
  • Created a stronger school community for incoming 6th graders.
  • Reinforced Math, ELA & Technology skills to assist in the transition to the Middle School.

Trust the Process

  • Step 1: Determine the purpose of the Academy.  Where is the most need?  Is it enrichment? Is it remediation?  What level(s)? What departments?  
  • Step 2: Based on the purpose of the academy, use relevant data to identify students
  • Step 3: Send out Invites to Students
  • Step 4: Identify Curriculum & ‘Soft Skill’ Areas to Address
  • Step 5: Identify Areas of the School/Grounds to ‘Improve’ (Include Buildings Supervisor)
  • Step 6: Run the Academy
  • Step 7: Administer the post assessment reflection questions
  • Step 8: Follow up to make changes (as possible) to each area marked for improvement

A more specific, month by month timeline can be found here: Stage 3- Learning Plan.


The impact of the program can be seen in many ways in relation to the confidence and leadership capacity it built in the students who attended, and, even more evident, visually in the spaces from the projects the students worked on during the course of the past two years.

What About Feedback?

“I couldn’t believe my son/daughter wanted to go to school over the summer…” was probably the most telling piece of feedback we received from the narrative part of the Inventory.  

Along with this, the numbers worked out this way:

What Have We Learned So Far?

Lesson 01- Student Ownership: it is no surprise to those who have turned the learning over to students before that the outcome is usually fantastic.  When the proper structures are put in place and we ‘push and support’ our students, they engage in incredibly deep, meaningful and reflective ways with the learning, decision making, etc.  The second year into this Academy, we had a student Shark Tank group open with the following picture and question: Would you want to learn in this classroom?  The student decided to take that picture to give us his/her point of view of what he/she sees in a traditional learning space.  It was a pretty powerful moment.

Lesson 02- Staff Ownership: make sure to touch base with the district Supervisor of Buildings, as well as any staff who are impacted by the changes.  The Buildings Supervisor was huge in terms of budget, as well as helping to get quick turn around on the work. We dropped the ball by not giving the MS Librarian a heads up that the Reading Room was being changed (she was out on maternity…it literally just slipped our mind), so she still to this day is pushing back on any changes we are making to the Library Spaces.

Lesson 03- Use of Data: depending on school culture, use data for the initial list, but DEFINITELY get teacher input or feedback on which students they feel would benefit. A good number of students were placed not on data, but on social emotional need garnered from teacher input.

Lesson 04- Choose Quality Teachers: the key to the program working as well as it had is who we ended up hiring to teach it.  Both of the teachers were student-centered, open to project based learning, and who were willing to collaborate to take risks with the students.

Lesson 05- Be Grounded in Your Beliefs: I mentioned this earlier, but the Academy directly supported and grew out of our District Goals: 

  • Student Achievement: the focus was on helping incoming 6th grade students whose academic achievement is ‘at risk’, and/or students for whom the social emotional experience of changing buildings could be difficult.  We used data to help identify students, then keep track of those students the following year (grades, confidence, ability to fit in.) are practices that support student achievement.
  • Professional Learning: the professional development for the teachers running this Academy was both necessary and focused.  The bulk of the time was spent supporting the teachers in their dive into the Understanding by Design 2.0 Curriculum maps, as well as in the specifics around applying the Mathematical and English Language Arts content to a more project based environment.  There was also a focus on teacher as facilitator vs. teacher as presenter.
  • Management of Systems: this Academy helped us create a systemic way to address a need (supporting the 5th to 6th grade transition for a certain portion of our population) that our Middle School had, which we did not have a structure to support.
  • Hiring the Best and Brightest: The teachers who Garnet Valley hired to run the Academy made all the difference.  They were the teachers who were most open to this type of format for learning, who were student centered, and who were willing to collaborate to take risks with the students.
  • Fiscal Responsibility: by creating the curriculum in house, and by focusing on district space (the Middle School), the only real expense was the salary for the teachers, as well as the expense for the spaces that were being improved.  Most of these areas had been discussed as ‘needing improvement’ prior to the Academy, so giving the students a budget, choice in which areas to address, and say in how the design and implementation of the improvements played out was an added bonus.

What’s Next?

This question is also tied to a proverbial Lesson 06- Expansion: what we have not figured out yet is how do we grow this beyond the 30 or so students who are in the program. We have roughly 350-400 students in grade 6; we invite 60 or so; and we typically get 20-30 to participate.  

Questions we have discussed: how do we engage the students who need it yet can’t find the time?  Could we expand this beyond just ‘at-risk’ students to incorporate this as an acceleration/enrichment opportunity as well? How can we get these types of project based learning activities as a part of our regular curriculum?

Stay tuned for updates as we continue to explore answers to these questions!

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