District Cutbacks In Summer Schools Seen as Damaging

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When Shirl E. Gilbert 2nd, the newly appointed superintendent of the Indianapolis public schools, announced this month that the district was suspending summer school, he did it with "the utmost regret."

"Eleven thousand kids will be on the street this summer," he said in an interview. "What they'll be doing is a serious problem."

"But in the real world," he continued, "you have to be concerned about youngsters getting their education in the regular year, in the regular classroom, with their regular teachers."

Mr. Gilbert is not alone in making what he termed "a difficult decision."

Confronted with overwhelming budget deficits, school districts nationwide have placed summer-school programs on the chopping block, prompting some educators and policymakers to question the schools' reform commitment in an era of economic austerity.

The problem, they say, is that school officials are too quick to sacrifice summer programs given the mounting evidence of the importance of summer school in maintaining achievement levels, especially for at-risk students.

"The word has gotten around that this three-month period of the year plays a fundamental role in the way kids are educated," according to Gary Walker, executive vice president of Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based organization that has developed an acclaimed summer education and jobs program for at-risk students.

The trouble, he added, is "I don't think administrators are spending the time and resources to get involved."

While many district budgets for the 1991-92 school year have not been finally approved, summer-school cuts are inevitable, observers say, especially for innovative enrichment programs developed with reform in mind. For example:

The Florida legislature is threatening to cut off $759,312 slated for Dade County's massive summer program, in which more than 200,000 students--or 60 percent of the district's population--participate. The program is the largest in the country.

Facing a $4.1-million deficit in a $67-million budget, the Oceanside Unified School District in San Diego County will almost certainly cut at least half its programs, which district officials call the most comprehensive in California.

Montgomery County, Md., is considering slashing half the district's summer programs for high-school students and eliminating all elementary-level enrichment courses.

The District of Columbia school board agreed in February to halve the district's summer programs.

Summer school will be high on the list when New York City begins work in June to shave off $505 million from existing school programs.

The Patchogue-Medford School District, on New York's Long Island, is discussing users' fees for summer-school students.

Likewise, Arlington, Va., has raised its users' fees from $115 to $150 per high-school student and eliminated tuition waivers for underprivileged students. With the district's permission, however, tuition may be set at $40 per family.

To avoid raising elementary-school fees above the current $150, the Arlington school board lopped off six days from the summer-school session for elementary students.

And New Jersey's Lawrence Township School District will eliminate its summer school in an effort to save $25,000.

"We've already gone through what some people consider to be fat," Superintendent Barry Gleim said. "After that, we had to go to the bone. ... The student is the one being caught in the shortfall, and it's just criminal."

The cuts come on the heels of a decade in which summer school has become increasingly popular--for both remediation and enrichment. (See Education Week, June 22, 1988.)

While no recent data on the number of summer-school programs or on the number of students served are available, observers agree that the 1980's were marked by burgeoning enrollments and expanded course offerings.

The value of summer school to help students catch up with their studies or to maintain their achievement levels has been well documented, educators note.

Several studies have shown, for example, that during the summer months, students--especially those at the borderline of academic achievement--can lose between 50 percent and 100 percent of what they learned the school year before.

In 1985, Public/Private Ventures put a group of 13- and 14-year-old at-risk students through its summer school and jobs program and another group through only the jobs component, Mr. Walker said. The first group entered school the following fall having either gained or remained on steady academic ground over the summer, the study showed. The second group lost between a half and a full grade of learning.

A 1978 study conducted for the New York State Board of Regents and a 1986 study by a Washington-based consulting firm, Research and Evaluation Associates, reached similar conclusions.

Educators have learned that summer school "is the most viable intervention available to school districts," said Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

He said smaller class sizes and a lighter workload in summer school provide struggling students with a unique opportunity to catch up to, and, in some cases, even surpass, their peers. He noted that summer-school cuts will be especially damaging at a time when districts are setting higher achievement standards and relying in part on summer remediation to meet them.

"For kids who need additional work, summer school is never a frill activity," said Timothy Dyer, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Acknowledging the remedial benefits of summer school, most school districts are scrambling to save their compensatory programs.

Indianapolis, for instance, will keep 2,000 students in remedial summer programs, using funds provided by the state under a 1988 law requiring summer school for students who fall below mandated standards.

Although remedial courses for middle- and elementary-school students in Loudoun County, Va., will probably be suspended, the school board hopes to find funds for some high-school remedial classes also slated for cutting, Molly Converse, a spokesman for the district, said.

Likewise, Montgomery County will fund all classes for students in danger of failing a grade or not graduating on time.

The District of Columbia also intends to keep enough summer-school classes available for failing students to pass on to the next grade or graduate from high school.

But Mr. Gleim, the superintendent of Lawrence Township in New Jersey, said students in need of credits to graduate will have to stay on next school year or find a summer-school program in a neighboring district--a difficult prospect, he added, considering many of those districts discontinued their summer-school programs years ago.

And other district officials said a desire to preserve remedial programs may not be enough when budgets become final over the next few months.

In general, however, it is the enrichment courses that are likely to get the ax.

Often created in response to the increased standards adopted as part of state education-reform laws, summer enrichment programs are sometimes seen as a convenient target by budget cutters.

In Dade County, summer enrichment classes have included laboratory work with private-sector scientists, environmental studies in the Florida Everglades, pre-Advanced Placement studies for students not quite ready for senior-year AP classes, and accelerated computer training for elementary students, said Marilyn Neff, associate superintendent for management and accountability.

"Money may be tight," she said, "but I don't think they should throw out a good idea or penalize us because we came up with it."

"I don't think this is fat at all," Mr. Dyer of NASSP said. "This does not bode well for education reform."

But many district authorities do think of summer enrichment programs as fat.

The 17,000-student Oceanside Unified School District had taken pride in the fine-arts and academic-enrichment classes offered in its summer school, which enrolled 6,000 students last year, said Dan Armstrong, a district spokesman.

But when district administrators presented the school board with a prioritized list of 28 potential cuts, he said, summer school fell 23rd.

"It will always be one of the first things you see going," said Mr. Walker of Public/Private Ventures.

By cutting summer school, he added, "you're not harming teachers' income, and you're keeping the entire educational superstructure intact without hurting anyone but the students."

The irony, Mr. Dyer said, is that the summer-school cuts are coming at the same time that the debates over expanding the school year and creating year-round education are growing.

What the cuts show, Mr. Cawelti of the ASCD said, is that a year-round education must involve a reallocation of school resources. As it stands, summer school will continue to be viewed as an add-on to what Superintendent Gilbert of Indianapolis called "the regular year."

Of more immediate concern, observers note, is the huge number of children who will have nothing to do this summer.

"This is a serious problem--not only from an academic standpoint, but from a social standpoint as well," Ms. Neff of Dade County said. "You're not going to absorb 200,000-odd students into Little League."

Mark J. Goff, a spokesman for the Indianapolis school district, noted that the district had offered classes on self-reliance, including how to negotiate public transportation and how to hold down a job. Those classes are among those being dropped, he said.

With luck, officials say, an economic upturn will allow school officials to reinstate programs in the future.

"This is only a short-term cut to get us past this fiscal situation," Mr. Gilbert assured. "We know very well we waste lots of time in the fall trying just to get kids back to point zero before they can begin moving ahead."

But until summer school becomes integrated into educators' vision of American education, proponents say, it will remain in a tenuous position.

"School districts ... really don't view summer education as a primary mission," Mr. Walker of Public/Private Ventures said. "We've got to find a way to make it a part of the educational system."

Vol. 10, Issue 31, Page 1, 13

Published in Print: April 24, 1991, as District Cutbacks In Summer Schools Seen as Damaging
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