The Heat Is On as Big Districts Expand Summer School

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Though workbooks lie open and students sit neatly at their desks, the 8th graders assembled for the day's geometry lesson this morning at Beaubien Elementary School seem lulled.

Annmarie Enright methodically fills the blackboard before them with sketches and vocabulary words. "Can anyone tell me what 'congruent' is another name for?" the teacher asks the class, her voice straining over the hum of the air conditioning system. No hands go up. A pregnant pause passes.

"You need to know this, class," she warns the quiet, racially mixed group of about a dozen students. "You're going to be tested on it."

And the tests are going to count.

This summer, Chicago and several other big-city districts have summoned thousands of children back to school in attempts to hone the skills of students who have fallen behind.

Many of these programs are a crucial element in districts' efforts to hold students to higher standards and to end the "social promotion" of children who aren't ready for the next grade.

The stakes are high, both for the students, who in many cases must either show improvement or repeat a grade, and for the districts, which are under pressure to improve lagging achievement and show greater accountability.

'Targeting Resources'

In the District of Columbia, about 20,000 students who scored poorly on standardized tests are slated for the 77,000-student district's first-ever mandatory summer classes. In 89,000-student Gwinnett County, Ga., east of Atlanta, some 10,000 students were recommended for summer school. In Milwaukee, officials have revived summer school after a five-year hiatus, and some 17,000 of the district's 106,000 students are signed up.

Denver is requiring about 2,500 students who are reading below grade level to attend summer school. And administrators in the 68,000-student Boston school system are working on a large-scale plan for mandatory summer school, possibly for the summer of 2000.

In Chicago, which has the largest and perhaps most rigorous summer school program, 60,000 students have been summoned back. For these 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 9th graders, whose low test scores, failing grades in reading or math, or excessive absences have propelled them into the city's mandatory "bridge program," lazy summer is a thing of the past.

If students in the program fail to show improvement, they'll lose their pass to the next grade. In most cases, that decision will be based on standardized tests that will be given early next month.

Robert Pavon admits that he'd rather be playing basketball. But the soft-spoken teenager says he wants to pass his 8th grade program at Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School "really badly."

If he doesn't, Robert, who at 15 is too old by the district's reckoning to repeat the 8th grade in a regular classroom, will be sent to an alternative school this fall. "I'm working hard," he insists, shaking his head almost in disbelief.

Officials here say the six- and seven-week mandatory program, for which they supply detailed lesson plans, is part of the system's push for higher standards and greater accountability. ("Do or Die," Aug. 6, 1997.)

The program is not a stopgap measure, but part of a broad assault on chronically low achievement, says Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer

"It's our version of year-round schools," he explained last week. "We're taking advantage of the summer months, targeting our resources to kids who have fallen behind."

The mandatory bridge program is only one slice of the district's summer offerings. Schools are also open for special education, bilingual, and gifted programs and a variety of recreation activities. All told, about 175,000 of the system's 430,000 students are in schools this summer, administrators say.

Sweating It Out

The summer months can be a learning drain on poor and urban children, experts say. Often, they have far less access to out-of-school learning experiences than their suburban and middle-class peers.

A recent report by sociologists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore documents that drain. Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle followed the academic progress of 790 Baltimore students who began 1st grade in 1982.

They found that, though poor and nonpoor children have similar test scores during the school year, nonpoor students continue to make academic gains over the summer, while less advantaged children typically show declines.

High-quality year-round schooling for less affluent children, the researchers conclude, would help close that learning gap. Experts say that conclusion has long been obvious, but until recently the will and wherewithal to put those findings to good use have been lacking.

"It's a longstanding finding that poor kids lose more academic ground over the summer months," said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools. "These summer school programs speak to that loss."

But, as districts seek to end social promotion, Mr. Casserly worries about research showing that holding students back multiplies their chances of dropping out of school altogether.

Mr. Vallas says that Chicago's mandatory summer school, in conjunction with expanded after-school programs and remedial centers, is providing a safety net for low achievers.

"Kids are dropping out because they can't read," he said. "They're dropping out because, for so many years, they were passed along to the next grade" without having mastered the necessary skills.

'D-Day' Ahead

In Charles Saporito's reading class at McAuliffe Elementary, 8th graders read a short story that takes place in Australia's outback--far from the liquor stores, boarded-up houses, and homeless people that dot their West Side neighborhood.

"There's a lot of resentment the first week the students are here, but we turn it around pretty quickly and try to stay focused," the 31-year-old teacher says as he checks on students' work. A sign in the corner of the blackboard reads "D-Day"--testing day for these teenagers--"Aug. 3 & 4."

But grudges are not a problem in Amalia Rini's 1st and 2nd grade "early-intervention program" at Beaubien Elementary. Her seven students seem eager to participate, and most raise their hands when she asks a question. ''They were excited to learn they were coming to summer school," says Ms. Rini, 28. The summer school is "a great concept," she adds. "And I think it's a good start."

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 7

Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as The Heat Is On as Big Districts Expand Summer School
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