Financial Woes Afflict Summer School

June 24, 2010 10 min read
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With summer having officially arrived this week, children are heading 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 Harrisburg, Pa.

At the same time, however, some districts are actually ramping up—and even reinventing—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 are “changing that image of summer school as a place you don’t want to be.”

The centerpiece of the effort in Pittsburgh this year is the 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 next month will feature a literacy curriculum in the mornings designed to be fun and engaging. In the afternoons, “campers” will 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, just this week, 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 will focus 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 report issued last week by 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.

One 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. “This limited range of programming stands in stark contrast to the options available for many middle- and upper-income students, who have access to summer camp, academic-enrichment programs, vacations, trips to museums and libraries, and other hands-on activities that support learning during the summer.”

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”;

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

• Target key transition periods such as the summers before kindergarten, middle school, and high school to ensure students are ready.

Seniors Only

Leaving the issue of quality aside, many children simply won’t get 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.”

She said the city’s recreation and parks department “has stepped up considerably the number of classes, day camps, and recreation available to kids, to give them places to go during the day.”

Survey data from school districts issued earlier this month 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, who described the budget situation in her state as “pretty bleak.”

In Colorado Springs, officials in the 28,000-student District 11 decided to eliminate 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 are 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 school officials 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.

“What we decided to do was 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 was able to save money on building operations, summer school employment, and student transportation, he explained.

“Those were the big-ticket items that constituted the savings for the district,” he said.

In addition, for high school students, the district has eliminated face-to-face credit-recovery courses in the summer and instead is making online credit recovery available.

“Students can pay $25 and take these virtual credit-recovery programs,” Mr. White said. “Last year, we were charging $175 per student to attend summer school. This will provide savings for families.”

School officials in the 8,000-student Harrisburg district in Pennsylvania recently put families on notice that remedial summer school for high school students was canceled because of a budget squeeze, though elementary and middle school programs that are grant financed will be available.

District officials said at least 25 students would have to sign up for a class to make it cost-effective to offer it in the summer, and the school system lacks enough money to supplement the cost.

To help some cash-strapped districts in New Jersey avoid canceling summer school, a bill approved in recent days by the state Assembly and a key Senate committee would allow schools to pass on the costs of summer remedial and enrichment classes to families that can afford it. Districts would be barred, though, from charging families with incomes below federal poverty guidelines.

Scaling Up

At the same time, there are at least some districts that are actually scaling up summer school. The 161,000-student Philadelphia district is aiming to nearly double the size of its Summer Learning and More, or SLAM, program, to be run from June 29 to July 28. The district is making 50,000 slots available for the program, which combines a focus on core academic skills with enrichment activities. That’s an increase of 20,000 from last year.

In Pittsburgh, Ms. Reed said that as part of the recent changes to summer school for students in the middle grades, the district aims to triple enrollment, to 2,400 students.

She noted that last year, many students who at first enrolled didn’t stick with the program, with only 300 completing it. District officials are hoping the improved offerings will keep more students coming back this year. 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.”

Overall, the Summer Dreamers Academy, which Ms. Reed calls a “literacy-based summer camp,” will be a far cry from summer school in prior years for middle schoolers, with a new curriculum and an array of enrichment activities.

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

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

In Baltimore, the 83,000-student district is also revamping its middle school offerings, establishing 15 centers across the city for a six-week program beginning June 28, according to Ryan Reid, the program coordinator for the middle school program. The district’s approach will combine morning instruction in core subjects with a variety of other activities in the afternoon, 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 with the local nonprofit Wide Angle Youth Media. The afternoon activities are designed in part to infuse academic skills in a more applied, hands-on way.

The district is heavily promoting the new middle-grades program to boost enrollment, said Ms. Reid.

“We have radio ads going out, and mass mailings just went out,” she said.

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

Baltimore enrolled about 1,000 middle schoolers for summer school in 2009, and this year the district is aiming to see the total climb above 2,000.

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.

“We have been working with ... these districts and highlighting them as good examples, and in the future, we will be doing some case studies of what worked,” he said.

In the case of both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Mr. Smink notes that the school systems have spent considerable time planning for their summer programs, 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.

And while some local foundations are also making contributions, the big question is what happens once the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money, which the district will use now and for the summer of 2011, 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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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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