For more students, summer means ... more school

Roxanne Zarco does not want to be here. She could be curled up in bed, waking without the squawk of an alarm. She could be watching TV. She could be anywhere else.

Instead, the Latina seventh-grader has seen her morning of leisure dissolve onto the black asphalt in front of Brentano Academy. Like scores of fellow students, she's waiting for summer school to start.

Some of her classmates need to be here to graduate to the next grade. Others, like her, are here to keep busy. "My mom doesn't want me to be bored sitting around all summer," she says with an air of resignation.

All of them are part of the summer-school revolution. Once thought of as a holding pen for the worst students, summer schools nationwide are now for just about everyone - part studies, part summer camp. More than half of Chicago's 430,000 students are enrolled.

In urban areas especially, summer school has become indispensable not only to educators pressed by tougher promotion standards, but also to parents squeezed by full work schedules and thin pocketbooks. In addition, it has become a way for the most aggressive students to distance themselves from the thickening crowd of college applicants.

As a result, the notion of summer is changing for many young Americans. While many still see summer as a time of camp counselors and backyard baseball, more and more are supplementing that with computer classes and history textbooks - taking no vacation from education.

"This is really a new phenomenon at this scale," says Mary Fulton, a policy analyst at the Education Commission for the States in Denver. "A lot of students are having to get used to this."

By far, the most significant changes are happening in major cities like Chicago. Over the past five years, enrollment in Chicago's summer programs has swelled tenfold to about 220,000. New York saw 300,000 students enroll last year, and numbers in Detroit quadrupled to 36,000.

The reasons for the growth are manifold, but the beginning of the trend nationwide can clearly be traced to Chicago's decision in 1996 to curb social promotion - the practice of advancing students based on age rather than achievement.

Other districts have followed, and, like Chicago, have found that summer school is a vital last chance to help kids meet promotion requirements.

This year, about 30,000 of the kids in Chicago's summer programs - the largest number ever - are there to avoid being held back. To some, this is evidence that Chicago's schools aren't improving quickly enough. And recently, both the city's school board president and CEO of schools resigned amid criticism that their reforms had stalled.

Yet there is also evidence that this approach has had some success, with lagging students getting more time and personal attention over the less-hectic summer months. A year ago, more than 70 percent of the third, sixth, and eighth graders required to take summer school graduated to the next level.

Janet Hartu supports the idea. The curly haired mother of two has come to Brentano to drop off her children on the first day of summer school. Pausing in front of the school's red-brick facade, she says her stepdaughter is behind in her reading skills and needs extra attention.

"It's been a help," she says.

When parents aren't home

There's another aspect of Ms. Hartu's situation that speaks to the growth of summer schools. Usually, she leaves for work at 4:30 a.m. and doesn't return until 2 p.m. Her sister is there for the kids, but school gives them something to do.

Indeed, the rise of two-parent working families and single-parent families has made schools' free summer programs an attractive option.

"There's a cultural phenomenon that's related to the changes," says Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia who has researched summer school. "The resistance to schools providing additional instruction time is slipping, and some parents are looking for it."

Chicago is happy to oblige. Officials say they would like to see as many as 300,000 students enroll in the system's summer programs - which include subjects ranging from bilingual education to marching band - to keep them off the streets and engaged in school-related activities.

Such ambitious programs, however, can cause logistical problems. New York, for instance, had to install hundreds of air conditioners and recruit 16,000 teachers last year. Moreover, once school started, roughly half the high-schoolers required to attend chose to skip the classes.

So far, Chicago hasn't had any crises. It finishes school at 12:30 p.m., and teachers have been supportive of the plan. But that doesn't mean it has been easy.

"It puts a lot of stress on teachers and administrators to organize," says Nydia Castillo, assistant principal at Brentano. "Plus, we have to convince parents not to go on vacation." She's also concerned students may be overloaded. "It's a real problem; kids need free time also."

In some cases, though, it's the kids who are eager to keep learning. This has been particularly true among the suburban set scrambling to improve college applications. Today, more Americans have a college degree than ever, and in this era of increased competition, some students are turning to summer school to give them an advantage. "If you want to differentiate yourself, you have to have experiences that set you apart," says Rick Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "You're beginning to see schools cater to this."

Get a jump on competition

Woodberry Forest in nearby Orange, Va., is one. Set amid the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the bucolic prep school has seen enrollment in a four-year-old summer program, called Young Scholars, nearly quadruple to 36 students.

In Young Scholars, middle schoolers can write and act in their own plays. They can study the Civil War on the battlefields where it happened. They can learn how to build a computer.

"A lot of young people are looking to the future and making an investment [of their time]," says Ben Hale, director of Woodberry Forest Summer Experience. "They're looking at ways to get ahead."

It's an attitude that also resonates in the city. Rose Becerra gave her two daughters a choice: They could sit at home, go to summer camp, or enroll in Chicago's booster program, which prepares students for the coming academic year. They both signed up for the class.

"We can always have fun after 12:30," she smiles.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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