Summer School Booms in Chicago

By Caroline Hendrie — August 07, 1996 4 min read
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Hoping to keep children off the streets and into their studies, the Chicago public schools enrolled more than 101,000 students in summer school programs this year--whether they wanted to be there or not.

In general, parents, students, and teachers welcomed the dramatic expansion of summertime offerings by the district’s new administration. Still, some educators complained that certain programs suffered from logistical glitches and slapdash preparation.

Nearly a quarter of the district’s 413,000 students took part this summer in some form of in-school activity, with the number in purely academic programs soaring from 22,000 last summer to more than 75,000 this year. Another 26,000 students enrolled in various recreation, arts, enrichment, and jobs programs, some of them sponsored by the city but held in the schools.

“On the 21st of June we closed the largest school system in the state, and on the 24th we opened up the second-largest,” observed Blondean Y. Davis, the system’s deputy chief education officer.

Among students in academic programs, 6,700 were part of the school board’s new mandatory “summer bridge” program for 8th graders with poor standardized-test scores. Another 9,500 students with low scores took part in 3rd- and 6th-grade bridge programs that were optional this year but are expected to be required next year.

Officials from the district’s central administration, including Chief Executive Officer Paul G. Vallas, see the summer school surge as emblematic of their efforts to bolster expectations, opportunities, and achievement throughout the district. They have given special prominence to the required catch-up classes, which they portray as vital to ending social promotions--the practice of passing students on to the next grade despite severe academic shortcomings.

Glitches Cited

But while the 8th-grade bridge program captured the city’s attention--just as the administration had hoped--it also attracted some criticism.

After the $3.5 million program was under way, some local educators complained last month that it had been put together hastily and was being implemented unevenly. The problems included late delivery of materials, confusion over how students would be evaluated for advancement to 9th grade, and inconsistency in teacher training.

Other teachers and administrators, however, said the program was working smoothly at their schools, that attendance was excellent, and that students were making progress.

Following media inquiries about the problems, Mr. Vallas ordered his staff to survey principals on how summer school was going. Administration officials said the survey showed that problems were not widespread.

But they also pledged to make some changes in the bridge program next year, when it is expected to be extended to the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 10th grades. For one thing, the district will train teachers in the program entirely in-house, instead of relying on universities for some supplemental training, Ms. Davis said.

Last month’s controversy was not the first involving the bridge program.

When scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills rose in most elementary grades this spring, Mr. Vallas cited the threat of summer school as a factor. He asserted, and some principals concurred, that the prospect of summer classes and an end to social promotions spurred students to take the tests more seriously.

But some critics argued that the gains had more to do with efforts to improve schools that were under way well before Mr. Vallas took office last year.

Put to the Test

Under the summer-school policy, 8th graders who scored at least two years below grade level on either reading or math on the Iowa test administered in May were required to attend.

The seven-week program provided instruction in reading and math for a combined total of four hours a day.

Toward the end of the session, which wraps up in August, students were scheduled to take another version of the Iowa test. The decision on whether to advance them to high school will depend on those scores and their grades for the summer courses, Ms. Davis said. One exception will be 15-year-olds, who are prevented by state law from being retained in 8th grade, she said.

Students were required to attend the program if their scores in either reading or math fell below the cutoff point. Even though they might be above that level in one of the two subjects, all students had to take both the reading and math classes in the summer program.

Some teachers said that meant students who were not seriously deficient in one of the subjects wound up in classes with children many years behind.

Ms. Davis said, however, that such mismatches were rare. Fewer than 10 percent of the students were less than two years behind in either subject, and only about 50 children were above grade level in reading or math, she said.

Next summer, district officials expect even more schools to stay open and more students to attend. With the extension of mandatory summer school to the additional grades, Ms. Davis said total enrollment in summer programs may top 150,000.

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 1996 edition of Education Week as Summer School Booms in Chicago


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