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Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Summer School in New Orleans: Serious Business in the Big Easy

Summer School in New Orleans: Serious Business in the Big Easy

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Throughout the long, hot summer days here, children ride their bikes, cool off with a swim in nearby lakes and pools, or play Nintendo.

Most children, that is. But for a dozen students in a muggy classroom at Sophie B. Wright Middle School, and thousands of others throughout the city, that yearned-for freedom is a long way off.

These soon-to-be 4th and 8th graders have put seasonal pastimes aside for some serious business: a new, high-stakes state test that most of them are at risk of failing when they take it next spring.

Nearly half the nation's big-city school districts have summer school programs in place this year, products of the push for accountability and renewed demands to end the practice of promoting students who aren't academically ready. But New Orleans' approach differs from most of these districts'.

Pushing students through drills and exercises geared explicitly toward better scores on the Louisiana assessment isn't the primary focus of the city's Extended Learning, or "Ex-L," program. District leaders believe that a broader curriculum of creative lessons offered in a relaxed environment with small classes will lead in the long run to better test scores.

"We wanted something proactive rather than reactive, and came up with a program that's not remedial and not mandatory," said Calvin P. Casmier, who oversaw the development of the program as interim superintendent before taking a medical leave of absence last month.

And in another significant difference, the program is not just for the lowest-performing students. The district encourages, but does not require, students from all academic levels to participate.

Five-Week Program

At Wright Middle School, the change from the normal routines of the school year is immediately evident, and there is little of the relentless test-taking focus that is the mainstay of other summer programs.

The students have abandoned the uniforms they wear during the regular school year for shorts, T-shirts, and sandals.

On a sweltering day last month, Gwendolyn Ridgley is busy incorporating her class' soda-drinking habits into a math lesson on ratios.

"How many sodas do you drink in a week?" booms Ms. Ridgley, who like other teachers in the program earns extra pay for summer duty.

"We need to find the range, the median, and the mean," the teacher adds as she moves around the classroom. "And then we're going to move on."

About 120 students between the 7th and 8th grades fill out the classrooms in this once grand but now aged middle school in the uptown section the city. In this first year of the Ex-L program, about 7,400 rising 4th and 8th graders in the 82,000-student district are participating. The free, five-week summer program runs from 8 a.m. to noon and includes both breakfast and lunch.

No grades are awarded. To gauge progress, students are given a diagnostic test at the beginning and the end of the summer session.

Of course, the underlying goal of the summer program is to make sure New Orleans students are ready for the state test, the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program.

The test, known as LEAP, takes on new importance in the coming year. For the first time, students who fail either the mathematics or reading portion of the test will face mandatory summer school and could be held back a grade.

High Failure Rate Expected

According to Mr. Casmier, the state has predicted that as many as 80 percent of New Orleans students who take it could fail. That could lead the city to turn to a more test-oriented summer school program.

"We started asking early in the school year what could we do to prepare for LEAP," said Mr. Casmier, a 40-year veteran of the district. He served as the interim superintendent until a retired U.S. Marine colonel, Alphonse Davis, took up the permanent post last month.

Wright Middle School, like many of the city's aging and rundown school buildings, seems a gloomy setting for learning, especially with the city's swamplike summer climate.

Elaborate moldings and wooden pillars have been ravaged by termites, roof leaks have left rotted walls and floors, and rusted, sealed-up lockers line the hallways.

But like most of the summer school sites, Wright has air conditioning, and the students seem engaged.

"I like coming," said Frederick McFarlane, a studious-looking 13-year-old in round glasses and a buttoned-down shirt. Frederick, who said he gets decent grades, opted to come to the program because he wants to improve.

Even when pressed, he didn't mention any specific anxiety over the upcoming state test. "It's better than regular school because you get to do fun stuff," he said, such as hands-on and group projects. "And you get to wear regular clothes."

The small class sizes in the program have made it a lot easier for teachers to do their jobs well and to be creative with lessons, said Charlotte L. Matthew, Wright Middle School's principal. The Ex-L program requires fewer than 15 students per class, while classes during the regular year can be as large as 35 student, she said.

As a result, Ms. Matthew said, "scores are going up, and students and teachers are having fun."

Benefits for Poor Students

Though the school sits amid gentrified homes a few blocks west of the city's famous Garden District, many of its students are bused in from housing projects nearby. Poverty is a reality for most of the district's students: About 83 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Summer school can be especially beneficial for poor students, experts say. When school is out, children from poor families often do not have access to the learning opportunities enjoyed by their middle-class peers: books, camps, travel, and recreation.

During the summer, low-income students "don't get the same kind of day-to-day cognitive enrichment as upper-income students," said Karl Alexander, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who is conducting a long-term study on the progress of students in that city.

"The achievement gap widens over the summer," he added, but summer school can help reduce it.

In New Orleans, organizers have made an effort to differentiate the summer program from the rest of the school year.

"The climate is different. The atmosphere is light but effective, and kids are responding to that," said Gertrude A. Ivory, the interim director of the program. Though achievement statistics aren't yet available, she believes the program is having a strong effect.

'It's Been Great'

Teachers in the program agree that Ex-L seems to be working.

Across the city, at Martin Behrman Elementary School, an old building surrounded by oil refineries, public housing, and a charming historic neighborhood, Lillian Gibbs and her students seem to be enjoying themselves.

All eyes follow the veteran teacher as she saunters around the classroom, patting heads and answering questions.

She moves smoothly from biology--a lesson on the esophagus--to long division to a small writing project.

When she begins a math problem on the board and calls for volunteers, nearly every hand in the room reaches for the sky.

"I'm so excited about your interest," she says, smiling. "I enjoy every day you all are like this."

Later, she tells a visitor that she wishes the regular school year were as rewarding.

"Because of the small class size, I can really pay attention to every student's needs," she said. "It's been great. They work hard every day and have learned a lot in a short time. It makes us all happy to be here."

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Pages 6-7

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