Summer school’s a lifesaver for rural Wisconsin families that need childcare

By Salina Heller

June 27, 2024
Summer school’s a lifesaver for rural Wisconsin families that need childcare

Friends have fun during lunch at Osseo-Fairchild Elementary School Summer School.
Photo courtesy Salina Heller

Traditionally, summer school was a way to catch up on a subject students might need a little more instruction on. However, now there’s a growing recognition among educators, families, and policymakers that summer school is much more than that. It’s full of high-quality structured learning programs that are hands-on, engaging, and fun, while being a smart solution for working parents.

“There’s a lot of fun projects and at the end of every month, there are field trips you can go on,” said Charlotte, a student attending summer school in the Osseo-Fairchild School District. “I really enjoy going on field trips! There’s new ones every year.”

Eight-year-old Charlotte just wrapped up the second grade. She’s one of about 200 elementary-age kids on the summer school roster.

“At the end of the summer, there’s a thing where you go out onto the football field and they have sprinklers and you play in the sprinklers all day, and at the end of swimming lessons there’s a full day when you stay at the Osseo pool!” Charlotte said.

But behind the sprinklers and educational trips, what Charlotte doesn’t know is that for parents across Wisconsin—especially in rural districts like hers, which sits in parts of Trempealeau, Jackson, and Eau Claire Counties—her free summer school is a lifeline.

“We have a high percentage of participation,” Summer School Coordinator Kayleen Rosman said. “We probably have less than 40 elementary kids who don’t attend. And most kids are here for the full six weeks.”

Summer childcare is hard to find

Summer school’s a lifesaver for rural Wisconsin families that need childcare

The O-F Elementary School is the community site to get free meals in the area. All kids at summer school get free breakfast and lunch.
Photo by Salina Heller

Each summer, working parents face logistical and financial decisions to find a safe place for their kids to be all day.

Decreasing their own hours on the job, paying for camps and care programs, or hiring someone to watch their kids while they work all take a big bite out of parents’ paychecks. And that makes the economy tighter for everyone living in Wisconsin.

Earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tried to lessen that burden on families by expanding the child and dependent care tax credit. Meanwhile, Republican leaders have introduced bills they say will help the childcare crisis in Wisconsin through efforts like offering loans to childcare providers. Wisconsin Democrats, childcare providers, and non-partisan experts have all said such efforts aren’t the solution—sustained public funding for childcare is.

But while politicians argue, families need quality care now. In rural areas of the state where there are fewer options, public school districts are coming in with the save for working parents.

For the pairing of Osseo and Fairchild—with a total population of about 2,300— there are no parks and rec programs to attend in the summer, no Boys and Girls Clubs, and barely any childcare providers.

“We have two state certified daycares in the district—that’s not enough for all of the kiddos that need during-the-day-care,” Rosman said. “It’s hard enough to find after-school care, but for summer, it’s super hard.”

But there is summer school—seemingly the best opportunity in this childcare desert.

“We’re the only show in town, so to speak,” Rosman said.

“It takes a lot of pressure off families for that time during the summer,” said Andi Ryan, a special education teacher learning the ropes to also take over coordinating the Osseo-Fairchild summer school program.

“We hear from parents all of the time,” Rosman said. “They say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’”

Keshia Zimmerman is a parent who also works for the school district. Her son just finished up his kindergarten year, so she’s able to bring him right in to his summer school class.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “It’s amazing for families that have 9-5 jobs that can’t get daycare.”

All kids can eat for free

Summer school’s a lifesaver for rural Wisconsin families that need childcare

Eight-year-old Charlotte is a big fan of field trips and chicken teriyaki at summer school.
Photo by Salina Heller

It’s lunchtime and a voice calls out to each grade on the PA system, “First grade can go down to lunch!” Students clamor to grab a tray and get in line.

Eventually, 8-year-old Charlotte joins the crowd. Pizza is on the menu, along with an array of colorful fruits and vegetables—lettuce, grapes, pineapple, cherry tomatoes, raw peas, broccoli, and carrots.

While pizza and tacos are favorites among her classmates, Charlotte prefers the teriyaki chicken, and also has a breakfast favorite. “It’s a waffle breakfast sandwich—it’s like a waffle and it’s soaked in maple syrup, so it has a hint of maple syrup!” she said.

Breakfast and lunch are all free to the students—and to other kids, too. Osseo-Fairchild Elementary School is the community site for another program that helps Wisconsin families—SUN Meals.

Through the Biden administration’s SUN Meals, kids of all ages, in all communities across Wisconsin, can get food during the summer at no cost. Parents don’t even have to fill out an application—it’s just a matter of finding the school, park, or other designated neighborhood spot where the meals are distributed.

“It’s huge to have that resource,” Rosman said. “Can you imagine when you’ve had your child eating breakfast and lunch at school, and now all of a sudden, they’re home all summer?”

“That changes how much money you have to put in your food budget—and now they don’t have to because they can come here and eat for free.”

It’s a US Department of Agriculture-funded food service program that’s administered by states and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has chosen to participate to combat hunger, promote healthy eating, and help families save a little money here in the Badger State.

“In this rural area that we live in—it’s a smaller community—groceries can be expensive at the local grocery store,” Ryan said. “It’s really a great resource for families to be able to send their kids to school and be fed for the summer.”

Parent Keshia Zimmerman knows families appreciate any money and time-saving chances they get.

“It’s really nice, especially as a parent—I won’t have to worry about the lunches,” Zimmerman said. “Some families that don’t have the extra funds, they know their kids are getting fed.”

To find the location closest to you anywhere in Wisconsin, go to the map on the site finder.

Any kid qualifies, no matter which community they’re coming from, whether they get free lunch at school or not, and with no questions asked.

“I always tell the kids, ‘Get your brain fed so you can learn,’” Rosman said.

And while Charlotte is about ready to dump her tray with not much more than an empty milk carton on it, she imparts a grade for her summer school experiences.

“If I was rating it one to 10, I would give it a nine,” she said. “I want swimming lessons to be every day!”


  • Salina Heller

    A former 15-year veteran of reporting local news for western Wisconsin TV and radio stations, Salina Heller also volunteers in community theater, helps organize the Chippewa Valley Air Show, and is kept busy by her daughter’s elementary school PTA meetings. She is a UW-Eau Claire alum.

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