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Summer Study Grows in Popularity: From Suzuki Violin to E.S.L.

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Summer school, an institution that was once synonymous with failed grades and catch-up work, is gradually assuming a new identity--and a new popularity among parents, students, and educators.

In addition to the traditional remedial work, summer classes are now giving students the chance to concentrate on difficult courses, maintain achievement gains, pursue hobbies, and study nontraditional subjects.

Parents are seeking out such programs, administrators say, to help meet their child-care needs and to boost their children's chances for academic success.

And for many schools, the summer session has become a time to give extra attention to students with special needs and sample innovative teaching strategies.

The U.S. Education Department has not compiled statistics on summer-school enrollment since 1975, and experts say there are no recent national data on the extent to which school systems are offering programs or the purposes that they serve.

But interviews with school administrators in several states and large school districts indicate that enrollments are up and course offerings are expanding.

Besides standard course fare, students this summer will be taking classes ranging from English-as-a-second language to "Suzuki violin.''

For a variety of reasons--from the dramatic increase in the number of working parents to the national focus on "at risk'' youths--interest in summer programs "seems to be heading up,'' said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association for Elementary School Principals.

"It's not a major blip now,'' he said, "but I think we'll see more of an increase next year and in the years ahead.''

Tougher Requirements

The increased standards adopted as part of state education-reform laws are among the most commonly cited reasons for the expanded summer-school programs and rising enrollments of recent years.

For example:

  • Since 1985, the State of North Carolina has funded summer school for students in selected grades who score below the 25th percentile on the California Achievement Test. This summer, the funding will be extended to include all students in grades 1-11 who do not meet standards set at the local level or have been recommended for remedial help.

Enrollment is expected to increase from 40,000 to 80,000, and funding will rise from $10.8 million to $29 million.

  • In Indiana, summer-school enrollment is also expected to rise, due to a new testing program that requires students in several grades to attend summer classes if their scores fall below state standards. About 4 percent to 5 percent of the 500,000 students tested this year were below the standard.

Funding for the summer-remediation program will increase from about $9 million to $19 million. This will be in addition to the $14 million the state provides districts for other summer programs.

  • Increased standards at the state and local level have helped push summer enrollment in the Dade County, Fla., school system from about 95,000 in 1984 to a projected 140,000 to 145,000 this summer, about half of the county's total student enrollment. Dade County's is the largest summer session in the nation.
  • In Minneapolis, summer-school enrollment has increased significantly in the three years since "benchmark'' testing was initiated. The program targets students in four grades for summer "intervention'' if they fail district tests.
  • As part of a comprehensive summer program launched three years ago, the Philadelphia school district also offers summer sessions for students in grades 1-8 who fail to meet systemwide promotion requirements, and for those in grades 9-12 who fail to meet graduation requirements.

In addition, Philadelphia, like other Pennsylvania districts, also identifies students in need of summer school through the state's Testing for Essential Learning and Literacy Skills program. The TELLS program offers remedial help to students in three grades who score poorly on tests in reading and mathematics.

Such summer remedial programs, experts say, are designed to head off the increases in grade-retention rates that tougher state standards may foster.

Otis Baker, the assistant commissioner of education in Missouri, said summer programs offer a positive alternative to retention policies and reinforce the notion that children have different rates of learning. Some who fail may simply need more time, he suggested, but perhaps not a repeated grade.

Help for 'Fast Forgetters'

In other districts, the focus may be more on skills-retention than on grade-retention, with programs aimed at preventing borderline students from losing, over the long summer break, the academic gains they made during the school year.

"One of the unfortunate things about students' being away from school for three months,'' said Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association for Secondary School Principals, "is that they may lose up to 60 or 70 percent of what they have learned.''

This is particularly true for remedial students, he said. "There is a tendency for slow learners to be fast forgetters.''

To prevent failure in the transitional years, which is often associated with high overall school failure rates among at-risk students, Philadelphia sponsors a summer program for disadvantaged students leaving elementary school for junior high school, and junior high for high school.

Even though some of the students may have been successful up to these points, said Spencer H. Davis, director of the district's student-promotion programs, "we don't want to lose them'' over the summer.

In a project involving several cities, Public/Private Ventures, a nonprofit research organization, launched a model program in 1985 aimed at halting such academic losses, lowering dropout rates, and improving disadvantaged students' employment prospects.

The Summer Education and Training Program, funded by the Ford Foundation, has served 6,000 students in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Fresno, Calif., and Portland, Ore. The U.S. Labor Department is attempting to replicate the program at numerous other sites, according to Gordon L. Berlin, former deputy director of the Ford Foundation's urban-poverty program.

Special Needs

Many districts also have launched summer programs to meet the needs of their growing numbers of non-English-speaking students.

The Los Angeles Unified School District offers an extensive program for non-English-speaking students in grades K-12, and the Minneapolis school system will offer English instruction to 400 limited-English-proficient elementary-school students and 200 high-school students this summer.

Summer sessions are also used to help special-education students meet goals in their individual learning plans. And some school systems have implemented summer programs for students entering kindergarten.

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard R. Green recently launched "summer kindergartens'' to help prepare children with limited kindergarten experience for school. Last year, the Dade County, Fla., schools served 9,500 students entering kindergarten in a similar program.

Districts are also offering a greater variety of nontraditional courses. In addition to music and computer programming, summer-school courses described by administrators cover such topics as ecology, outdoor math, substance-abuse prevention, and gardening.

Courses for gifted students--long a popular summer offering--also have increased. For example, the Minneapolis school district sponsors two three-week summer enrichment sessions for students recommended by their schools. And Pennsylvania offers several "schools of excellence'' to serve talented students.

Governors' schools--state-funded summer residential programs for outstanding high-school students--also have proliferated, with 28 programs now operating throughout the country and several more in the planning stages.

School systems also are increasingly using summer schools to experiment with smaller class sizes, customized learning programs, and innovative teaching methods.

For example, part of Indiana's summer-school funding this year will support programs that tap the resources of local museums, universities, and businesses.

At the high-school level, experts say, more students are taking summer classes to tackle difficult subjects or accelerate their coursework.

Pushing Forward

In the past, said Robert L. Sipes, supervisor of the Dade County summer-school programs, the stereotype was that "only 'dummies' went to summer school.''

"Now you have a number of very serious folks trying to get an edge,'' he said, with pupils enrolling partly because they are "keenly aware that it's tough to find a job out there.''

Mr. Thomson of NASSP also attributes the growing interest in summer programs to education reform. Enrollment always surges, he said, "when you get a push for excellence.''

"It happened after Sputnik,'' he recalled. "As competition increases for grades and to get into selective colleges, you find students taking one of their tough courses in summer school as a strategy for improving their grades, or as a kind of hedge against getting a poor grade.''

From Complaints to Kudos

Those in the field say that the expanded course selections, more rigorous school standards, and increased academic competition have warmed many parents to the notion of sending their children to summer school.

When North Carolina first raised its promotion standards, said Dennis Davis, director of support programs for the state education department, "many parents were complaining because children that might have done fairly well during the school year were now, because of a test score, being required to attend summer school.''

Now, he says, many parents who saw summer school as a "punitive measure ... view it as a very positive educational experience.''

The telephone calls he gets about the program now, he added, are from "parents trying to get their children included.''

Mr. Baker of the Missouri education department predicted, however, that negative images of summer school "may haunt us for awhile.''

Child-Care Role

Experts also say that summer school's popularity has increased as a result of the growing demand for high-quality, affordable child care for single parents and families with two working parents.

In Dade County, enrollment has grown from 50,000 in 1984 to a projected 77,000 this year in the elementary-school summer program, which offers breakfast and after-school care at 158 sites.

The program appeals to parents, Mr. Sipes said, because it offers a "nurturing, academic environment'' for children during the work day.

"Parents increasingly are demanding something more than just custodial care,'' added Marie F. Kaigler, coordinator of summer schools in the New Orleans school district. Besides its remedial summer-school program, the district operates day camps at several schools--on a sliding-scale tuition basis--that offer academic, extra-curricular, and recreational programs.

Funding Obstacles

Although budget increases linked to education reforms have helped to reconstitute or broaden the scope of summer-school programs that were eliminated or cut back in the 1970's, educators say insufficient funding is still a major problem.

Some states reimburse districts for part of summer-school costs, and many programs are partially subsidized by the districts or funded through tuition.

"The main obstacle that has limited the trend is money,'' Mr. Sava said.

Although Los Angeles has been rebuilding its summer school in the years since passage of Proposition 13, the tax-limitation measure, expansion in the elementary grades has been held back by a separate law limiting the state funding for nonremedial, core academic courses to coverage of 5 percent of a district's enrollment.

In Missouri, the legislature recently passed a measure to double the amount of state school aid flowing to districts that operate approved summer-school programs because it recognized that inadequate funding has been a "disincentive'' for districts to expand such programs, Mr. Baker said.

Mr. Sava of the N.A.E.S.P. said early-childhood proposals such as the "Smart Start'' bill before the Congress--which would provide federal funds to extend preschool programs into the summer months--would help bolster the summer-school movement.

But observers say that demographic changes, including increases in the percentage of working parents and in proportion of students vulnerable to school failure, may provide the best incentive for additional summer schooling.

"The educational need has always existed,'' said Mr. Baker, who maintains that most students would benefit from well-rounded, challenging summer programs. "But we now have a very compelling social reason to have them.''

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