Education Funding

Financial Problems Force Districts to Cut Summer School

July 13, 2010 8 min read
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With summer in full swing, children are off to camp, the beach, the pool, and in some cases, back to the classroom for the dreaded summer school. If it’s available, that is.

Amid difficult budgetary times, many school districts have scaled back, or even largely eliminated, their summer school offerings. Though no national data are available on the scope of the situation, examples span the country, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Colorado Springs, Colo., and Clayton County, Ga.

At the same time, however, some districts have actually ramped up—and even reinvented—summer programming for students.

“It’s really a mixed bag this year,” said Jeff Smink, the vice president of policy for the National Summer Learning Assocation, based in Baltimore. “Obviously, the economy is certainly having an effect, and there are cuts across the country.”

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And yet, Mr. Smink said he’s encouraged not only to see examples of districts that are expanding their offerings, but in at least a handful of places, such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, are also thinking anew about summer school as an experience that will prove far more engaging and meaningful for young people.

“When you think ‘summer school,’ it has this very negative connotation—that it’s punishment, you’re stuck in a classroom when your friends are outside doing fun stuff,” he said. But some districts, he added, are “changing that image of summer school as a place you don’t want to be.”

Academic Camp

The centerpiece of the Pittsburgh effort is a new Summer Dreamers Academy, billed as a “camp” available for free to all rising 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

“All of this is wrapped around the idea that we know summer learning loss is real,” said Cate Reed, who oversees K-8 summer programming for the 28,000-student Pittsburgh district. The five-week, all-day program that begins this week will feature a literacy curriculum in the mornings designed to be fun and engaging. In the afternoons, “campers” have a wide choice of activities, from judo and kayaking to music theater and video-game design.

“Higher-income kids who go to fancy summer camps—they don’t see the same kind of learning loss,” Ms. Reed said. “We’re giving our kids that same experience that maybe their wealthier peers experience.”

Meanwhile, last month, the Wallace Foundation, based in New York City, announced a series of grants totaling $9 million to help provide disadvantaged urban youths more time for high-quality learning both through improved summer learning opportunities and by extending the traditional school day and year.

The strategy is focused on building awareness of the value of extended learning time, helping national groups that are effectively educating children during these “underutilized” hours reach more children, and testing how effective programs might be made more widely available and evaluating those efforts. (The Wallace Foundation also underwrites coverage of expanded learning, as well as other topics, in Education Week.)

“Although summer learning loss may be responsible for as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap, there are few examples of programs to reduce it being consistently applied at large scale within a district, which is something we’re hoping to test and evaluate,” Nancy Devine, the director of communities at the foundation, said in a statement.

‘Mediocre Results’

Research has long suggested that summer can take a heavy toll on student learning.

A June report from the National Summer Learning Association, titled “A New Vision for Summer School,” says that since 1906, more than 40 empirical studies have found evidence of a pattern of “summer learning loss,” particularly for low-income youths.

A 2007 study, for instance, found that about two-thirds of the reading achievement gap between 9th graders of low and high socioeconomic standing in Baltimore public schools could be traced to what they learned, or failed to learn, over their childhood summers. (“Much of Learning Gap Blamed on Summer,” July 18, 2007.)

The new report from the summer-learning group emphasizes that it’s not enough for a district simply to keep its doors open in the summer months.

“While many school districts offer summer school, it is often in the form of remedial and punitive options that result in poor attendance, limited engagement, and mediocre results,” the report says.

The report identifies a set of 10 principles for its “new vision” of summer school. They include:

• Increase the duration, intensity, and scope of summer school;

• Change the focus from “narrow remediation” and test preparation to a “blended approach of both academic learning and enrichment activities”; and

• Offer strategies to boost student attendance and engagement, by providing healthy meals, field trips, recreation, and electives.

Seniors Only

Leaving the issue of quality aside, many children simply aren’t getting access to summer school in their districts this year as a result of budget cuts. Among the states, California may well be the hardest hit, given its dire financial straits.

“Basically, this year we have summer school only for seniors who would otherwise not graduate,” said Heidi L. Anderson, a spokeswoman for the 55,000-student San Francisco district. “The summer school cuts are due to the state budget cuts.”

Survey data from school districts issued in June by the California education department indicate that about one-quarter of the respondents said they had cut “supplemental instruction, summer school” for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 academic years.

Districts in a number of other states have reduced summer programming as well.

“That is on the list of things that some districts have been trimming back,” said Jane Urschel, the deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

In Colorado Springs, officials from the 28,000-student District 11 eliminated regular summer school programs for elementary and middle school students, for a savings to district coffers of nearly $1 million, according to spokeswoman Elaine Neleski. Credit recovery for high schoolers—which lets them earn course credit toward a diploma—is still available, and a few elementary schools were able to provide a K-3 reading program with support from a state grant, she added.

Charles White, a spokesman for the Clayton County district in Georgia, said his system will save more than $1 million by eliminating remedial summer classes for elementary and middle school students who had failed to meet the state benchmark on state testing.

“We decided to do ... the remediation and testing prior to the end of the school year,” he said.”We’re still in the midst of a budget crunch.”

The 50,000-student district is saving money on building operations, summer school employment, and transportation, he explained.

“Those were the big-ticket items,” he said.

Also, for high school students, the district eliminated face-to-face credit-recovery courses in the summer and instead has made online credit recovery available.

Scaling Up

At the same time, at least some districts have sought to scale up summer school this year.

The 161,000-student Philadelphia district has roughly doubled the size of its Summer Learning and More, or slam, program, which ends in late July. The district enrolled 58,000 students this year for the program, which combines a focus on core academic skills with enrichment activities.

In Pittsburgh, Ms. Reed said that as part of the recent changes to summer school for students in the middle grades, the district nearly tripled enrollment, to 2,300 students.

She noted that last year, many students who at first enrolled didn’t stick with the program. District officials are hoping the improved offerings will keep more students coming back this time. In fact, the district even conducted focus groups with students.

“We asked them, ‘Why do you hate summer school?’

One common complaint? “Bad food,” she said. “So we’ve improved the food dramatically.”

The Summer Dreamers Academy, which Ms. Reed calls a “literacy-based summer camp,” is intended to be a far cry from summer school in prior years for middle schoolers.

“The biggest difference will be that it’s full of choice,” she said.

Participants can pick from a variety of age-appropriate books to read, choose between two themes for the literacy curriculum, and select from a long list of afternoon activities.

In Baltimore, the 83,000-student district has also revamped its middle school offerings, establishing 15 centers for a six-week program that began June 28, according to Ryan Reid, who is coordinating the effort. The district’s approach combines morning instruction in core subjects with a variety of afternoon activities, such as building robots to compete in an end-of-summer tournament, getting swim lessons at the Michael Phelps Swimming School, or learning broadcasting skills. The afternoon activities are designed in part to infuse academic skills in a more applied, hands-on way.

“It’s a lot different. Last year, we took on that more remedial approach,” said Ms. Reid. “But we’ve decided, we have to go beyond remedial. ... Kids are going to be excited about this.”

Mr. Smink of the National Summer Learning Association said there’s great promise in some of the new efforts to reimagine summer school that he’s seen emerging in these and several other districts.

In both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, he notes that the school systems spent considerable time on planning, worked hard to make their offerings more engaging for students, and linked up with local partner organizations.

In addition, in both cities school officials are tapping federal economic-stimulus aid they received under the Title I program for disadvantaged students to help pay for their new programs.

“It’s a very expensive undertaking,” said Pittsburgh’s Ms. Reed, with the cost for the Summer Dreamers Academy expected to run between $3.5 million and $4.5 million this summer.

The big question is what happens once the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money, which the district is using now and next summer, runs dry.

“We know ... that after this summer and next, those funds will likely disappear,” Ms. Reed said. “We hope we can continue in 2012.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Financial Problems Force Districts to Cut Summer School


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