NEW YORK — The summer days of a child are meant to be filled with fields of green or lingering ball games and street hockey -not math, science, and worries about reading scores.
But that once-cherished view of summer as a time for kids to rest and play may be on its way out. Struggling school systems all across the United States are suddenly eyeing the long vacation as a golden opportunity to jump start the scholastic careers of at-risk students.
"[Mandatory] summer school is now being seen as a major tool for intervention," says Jaime de la Isla, assistant superintendent of the Houston Intermediate School District and director of the district's summer program. "It's been exciting to see this paradigm shift where summer programs are involved."
The shift has been a dramatic and widespread one. Although most districts have offered voluntary summer school for years, the move toward required classes has taken place so rapidly that many cities are now rushing to hire teachers, and accommodate and transport students.
*In New York, Chancellor Rudy Crew announced, as part of his shakeup of city schools, that all children in the 43 failing schools he is taking over will attend summer school next year. The city is already scrambling this summer to find enough teachers and classrooms to accommodate 58,000 students required to attend summer classes.
*In Houston, about 500 teachers will receive training for an academically rigorous summer program working with 8,000 first- through third-graders performing below grade level.
*In Boston, schools will require 6,000 students in Grades 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8 to attend small, intensive summer classes for math and reading. Many students will study in schools outside their neighborhoods, prompting transportation problems.
The push toward compulsory summer school is just one more piece of an intense national focus on educational standards. As more districts rely on high-stakes testing - the use of standardized test scores to determine whether students are promoted to the next grade -it is becoming critical to find ways to offer extra instruction for those who fail.
But even as school districts strain to make mandatory summer school possible, the question remains: Are these programs an effective means of boosting academic achievement?
"The jury's still out as to whether summer school works or not," says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States (ECS) in Denver. "Are we just cramming information into kids' heads or are they really learning? It's just too early to tell."
Harder than it looks
Results from existing summer programs show that it's not easy to boost academic achievement. Chicago became the leader of the summer-school movement three years ago when it required failing third-, sixth-, and eighth-graders to attend.
Of the 10,000 third-graders who took mandatory summer classes last year, 5,500 had to repeat a grade this year. In the sixth and eighth grades, almost 40 percent of students in summer school were retained despite extra instruction.
Pilot programs in Seattle and Minneapolis also yielded mixed results. In Seattle last summer, 175 fifth-graders participated in a form of "academic boot camp." Tests given at summer's end showed that many kids did make significant gains. But of the 37 students who failed fifth grade and hoped not to repeat it, only two were able to advance to sixth grade.
Many of the 16,000 students who attended Minneapolis's summer school last year gained as much as a full grade level. Yet only 20 percent of those who took the eighth-grade Minnesota Basic Standards Test at the end of summer were ready to move on to the ninth grade.
Even more disappointing were the results for the 1,900 fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders who took the summer classes. Fewer than 15 percent were performing at grade level as the program concluded. Younger children did better, with about 33 percent of third-graders in the program able to reach their grade level.
Don't rush to judgment
But it would be foolish to condemn summer school on the basis of such early results, says Gary Natriello, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.
When summer programs are done correctly, Professor Natriello says, they prove effective.
"It's a very simple principle," he points out. "Devoting more time to a task brings you further along, and summer school expands the time these kids are devoting to academics."
But simply expecting test scores to leap to the next level is not a realistic means of assessing the impact of summer programs, Natriello says. Students who are low achievers generally lose considerable ground over the summer, he points out, and "it might be quite a mark of success if the summer school program simply held the kids even."
He does worry, however, that the public and some districts may be not be patient enough with summer classes. "It's unrealistic to think that a one-shot summer-school program is going to solve learning problems," he says. "It will require the cumulative effect of four or five summer programs to really see results."
It could also require a change in attitude on the part of both teachers and students. "Summer school used to be something kids didn't take that seriously," says Steve Farkas, senior vice president and director of research for Public Agenda, a nonprofit educational research group based in New York.
But a recent poll done by Public Agenda shows a subtle shift in perceptions of summer classes. One year ago, 54 percent of students surveyed said they considered summer school a genuine learning experience, but this year 61 percent called it "serious." As for teachers, last year 50 percent surveyed by Public Agenda agreed with the statement that students "are not expected to learn much" in summer school. This year, only 44 percent agreed with the statement, while 47 percent said kids "are expected to learn a lot."
"It's a small change, not a dramatic one," says Mr. Farkas. "But it reveals something in the offing."
In some ways, says Ms. Fulton of the ECS, these new views of summer school simply confirm something many educators have been saying for years: "We haven't made good enough use of the summer."
But it would be a mistake, she says, to raise expectations too high. "Summer school is a first step, but we need some more fundamental longer-term solutions," she says. "We still need to make that basic classroom experience as great as possible."
An effect on regular classes?
Talk of particularly rigorous summer-school programs also raises key questions about what goes on in class during the year, points out Natriello. He agrees that it's great to offer summer-school teachers extra training and to work with highly focused curricula. But some hope such enhancements could spill back into the regular classroom.
As Fulton points out, summer-school teachers will have an opportunity to work with fewer students on a more individual basis - an experience that could sharpen their teaching skills.
But, she adds, summer programs may have to become more sophisticated before that happens. Simply doing more of the same thing that failed children during the school year will not help. "Right now it's more like six weeks of cramming these kids to pass a test," she says.
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