Tight times for summer school

Fiscal crunch erodes programs that have become woven into community life.

In recent years, America's education reforms have given summer school a new purpose and importance. This summer, however, budget deficits are leading educators to roll back or even eliminate programs.

From southern California to South Carolina, schools are cutting everything from elementary-school enrichment programs to middle-school math classes to balance their books. It's a common tactic: Summer school has long been one of the first sacrifices during financial downturns.

But never before has summer school been so integral to both the educational system and the broader community. For struggling students, it is the final opportunity to pass a subject or high-stakes test before repeating a grade. For working parents, it is a way to keep kids active and off the streets.

Already, some districts are talking about having to hold back hundreds, if not thousands of students because they can't offer summer programs. How these and other schools cope with the increased demand for summer learning at a time of financial crisis, experts say, could have a significant impact on the path and progress of classroom reform.

"School districts tend to treat summer school as fairly expendable in tight budget times," says Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning in Baltimore. "But the needs of young people are not seasonal.... It's a lot more costly in the long run to make a kid repeat a year."

Examples of substantial cutback, though, are widespread:

• Many school districts, ranging from Milwaukee to Denver to Hemet, Calif., have saved high school programs - seen as the most crucial - by canceling classes for elementary and middle-schoolers. "For the most part, all nonessential summer school programs are being cut back," says Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

• One district in South Carolina's Lexington County eliminated summer school entirely. Nearby Pickens County introduced a $150 fee to save its middle-school summer programs.

• Miami-Dade County schools in Florida trimmed 45,000 summer-school students from it rolls. Originally, the superintendent had wanted to cut more than 100,000 of the 135,000 students the district served last summer.

• Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland last week announced that it would end its mandatory summer school. It was created two years ago to help some 6,500 second- and sixth-graders who did poorly on a basic skills test. Prince George's officials said they did not see the results they had hoped for.

But Lynda Green, assistant superintendent at East Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut, has a different view. She's seen how summer school can shape success on state tests.

The marginal students who went to summer school after third grade - the summer before they took the state tests - fared far better than those who did not, she says. "It wasn't a scientific study, but we clearly made a difference in bringing in children who didn't have such severe need," she adds. "We could give them more individual attention."

This year, however, that program has been cut. Connecticut mandates that the district makes summer school available to those who have already taken the test and underachieved - and there's little money left over for preparatory classes.

"It forces us to look at more limited requirements rather than [reaching out]," says Ms. Green.

Yet in other districts, even that would be an improvement. Berkeley County got next to nothing from the South Carolina legislature for its summer programs, so it had to cancel them all simply to pay its teachers.

Now, the district faces the prospect of denying promotion to scores of students. Those who failed the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test have no opportunity to take remedial summer courses to catch up.

"In order for them to go from Grade 3 to Grade 4, they have to attend summer school," says spokeswoman Pam Bailey. "Now, they don't have that option."

And like many would-be students across the country, they will have more time on their hands. The sometimes sudden cancellations have sent parents scrambling to fill the void. "It's not just an academic problem, but it's a question of how to keep children active and safe over the summer," says Mr. Fairchild of the Center for Summer Learning. "It's a huge child-care dilemma."

Just ask Hydra Mendoza. She had planned on sending her third-grade daughter to the San Francisco Unified School District's five-week Spanish immersion program. When the district said it was dropping all its elementary summer-school classes, she had no choice but to cut back 10 hours a week at work.

"I'm lucky I can do that," says Ms. Mendoza, a public-school activist who also paid $390 to get her daughter into a math and science camp. "There will be a lot more kids at the playgrounds and in the streets [this summer]."

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