WASHINGTON — The air conditioners are churning overtime at Moten Elementary School, as some 200 students from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington read and cipher their way through summer school. With temperatures topping 100 degrees, no one seems in a rush to get back to sneaker-searing sidewalks.
"Summer School is Cooler!" reads a student poster hanging on the wall - and students insist that they're not just talking temperature.
"If I were at home, I'd just get up and watch TV. In summer school, you learn more, so that when you go back to winter school, you can be on top of stuff," says sixth-grader Burchelle Hewlett. A classmate adds that he doesn't miss being out on a basketball court because "playing outside doesn't get you where you want to be" - and he wants to be a lawyer. Another notes that summer school helps you "stay out of trouble."
Summer school used to be a bit of a lark - a little enrichment here, a few activities there, and no requirement to show up. But here, as in other cities where standardized test scores have been dismal, summer school is becoming serious business.
For the first time, Washington public schools are requiring summer school for students who score poorly on the Stanford-9 exam, one of five nationwide tests. This spring, 76 percent of the district's 11th graders scored "below basic" in math, which means that they had little or no mastery of the skills needed in that grade, while 46 percent scored "below basic" in reading. In all, some 20,000 students are attending classes this summer, many of their own volition.
"We are a community of people who care about our children, but we are failing them horrifically," said Emily Washington, a member of Washington's Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees, at a planning meeting for summer school last April. "A large percentage of them are poor black children. Many of them cannot read. We cannot afford to allow that to persist."
The move toward mandatory summer school to help kids meet higher academic standards started in cities, such as Chicago, but is developing into a national trend, educators say.
"Many states have developed lots of laws concerning school and district and teacher accountability, but are just beginning to focus on student accountability," says Kathy Christie, an analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "One of the big questions that school districts have to think about as they implement higher standards is what to do with the kids that don't make it," she adds.
In 1995, Chicago opted to end social promotion and require students who score badly on standardized tests to attend summer school. The city's summer program started with 22,000 students and expanded to 160,000 at a cost of $63 million this year, of which 49,000 students are required to attend for academic reasons.
Other cities and states are adopting features of the Chicago program.
Last year, Denver launched a mandatory summer program for at-risk readers in Grades 3, 5, and 8. Starting this summer, Long Beach, Calif., third-graders who are reading below grade level must also attend a summer reading program.
Georgia offers both a remedial summer-school program and a course to help students who failed one or more of the five exams now required for graduation. Neither program is mandatory.
In proactive Minnesota, schools are offering summer-school courses to help students prep for the state's basic skills test, which determines whether students will be able to graduate from the eighth grade and high school.
In Texas, summer school is not yet mandatory, but some school districts are offering extended-year programs for students not likely to be promoted to the next grade level. Corpus Christi students pay tuition to offset the cost of remedial summer school.
But educators warn that children who are not succeeding may need a new approach. "It isn't enough to just do what failed children the rest of the year," says Lisa Keagan, Arizona state school superintendent. "States need to ask, 'What's going to be different about three more weeks in the summer that wasn't available during the previous 175 school days?' "
In Washington's Summer Stars program, for example, new principals were assigned to direct the $10 million federally funded program, and teachers had to apply for their jobs. Remedial course materials were ordered, and students assigned to groups on the basis of test results, rather than age or grade level. Classes are small, fast-paced, and tightly scripted.
"The sound is 'er.' What's the word? Pert! Excellent!" says reading teacher Linda Williams, who teaches in Maryland during the regular school year. "Eyeballs in the book! Finger in the book!
"Stay with us, Team 5!" she adds. As she speaks, a classroom aide heads toward Team 5, whose collective lapse in concentration was barely visible to the naked eye. All snap back onto the page before the aide can reach them.
The teacher's comments are quick and sure - and prescribed right down to the pauses for emphasis and hand signals for class response in the course notebook that she carries.
Early on, critics in the district argued that good teachers would not agree to follow such a scripted lesson. But experienced teachers at Moten say that they like the results in the classroom. "I wanted to adhere to the script exactly as it was written to see if what I did would make a difference," says Beverly Rubain, who has been teaching at Moten Elementary for 31 years.
"I'm seeing good results in class. There's a lot of repetition in these lessons, and they add new material a little at a time. Also, the books we've been sent support what they're learning in the lessons. It's not that way during the school year," she adds.
Many Washington parents welcome the new effort. "We've had summer school in the past, but never in conjunction with mandatory performance levels," says Delabian Rice-Thurston, head of Parents United, a local education-advocacy group. "We are just hoping that the students will get what they need to be successful next year."
At the end of the six-week program, there will be another battery of tests. "With this sort of consistent and concentrated effort around specific student needs, there should be major growth by the end of the summer," says summer school Principal Saundra Handy.
Spokesmen for the US Department of Education, which helped fund the D.C. summer experiment, say such programs are especially important for at-risk children. "We are seeing many more summer-school programs as well as after-school programs for low-achieving children," says Mary Jean LeTendre, director of compensatory education for the US Department of Education.
"What our studies tell us is that with good instruction, all children can keep pace during the school year. But poor kids lose an average of two months in reading achievement over the summer. They're just not getting the stimulation at home that you find in more privileged families," she adds.
Many new public charter schools, which have a mandate to experiment, are tackling this problem by reworking school calendars. In Arizona, nearly one-third of the state's 240 charter schools have instituted year-round schooling to avoid a three-month gap in learning.
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