Summer school got cut? Kids can still learn.

Online courses, new day camps, and tapping stimulus funds are ways to minimize 'learning loss.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With apologies to Gershwin: Summertime ... and the learnin' ain't easy.

Educators and parents always try to minimize "learning loss" during the lazy days of summer. But this year, dire budget scenarios make it especially challenging. Some school districts have canceled summer school altogether, while others have reduced the slots available for academic and enrichment activities.

The good news is, tough times beget creative solutions: online courses, schools pairing with community groups to sponsor day camps, and districts tapping federal stimulus funds to keep summer school going.

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"It is going to take entire communities coming together to figure out ways to keep kids healthy, safe, and learning during the summer months," says Ron Fairchild, executive director of the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

For students struggling to catch up in reading and math, the loss of summer school doesn't bode well. A recent Johns Hopkins study found that 65 percent of the academic gaps between low-income ninth-graders and their peers can be attributed to unequal summer learning opportunities during the elementary grades.

"The kids who desperately need these opportunities ... are going to experience tremendous setbacks this summer," Mr. Fairchild says. Districts making cuts may save money now, he says, "but in essence they are incurring a huge debt in terms of the interventions that will be required later."

In North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, summer classes for many third-, fifth-, and eighth-graders at risk of not being promoted have been cut to save several million dollars. Statewide, proposed cuts could lead to thousands of teacher layoffs and the loss of after-school and summer opportunities for 15,000 students, says John Dornan, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit in Raleigh.

Los Angeles eliminated summer school for everyone except special-education students and high-schoolers who need credits to graduate, for a savings of about $34 million. The move affects more than 225,000 students.

In response, volunteers from United Teachers of Los Angeles hosted a Saturday workshop in June, where 150 parents picked up basic skills and resources for providing alternatives this summer. "There was an initial anger at the district ... but overall it was mostly, 'Let's get down to work so we can figure out how best to sustain [the children's] education over the summer,' " says UTLA president A.J. Duffy.

Nationally, 22 percent of surveyed educational community organizations said they were reducing or eliminating summer programs, the Afterschool Alliance in Washington reports.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has urged states and school districts to use some of the federal stimulus money for summer programs, citing "expanded learning time" as a strategy for closing achievement gaps.

Cincinnati is one city to tap such funds, along with regular federal money for low-income students, to create a more comprehensive program at struggling schools this summer. "Fifth Quarter" drew about 2,000 K-7 students, up significantly from traditional summer school participation. In the mornings, teachers targeted math and reading lessons to students' individual needs; in the afternoons, community partners offered field trips, science projects, and other activities that gave kids more incentive to participate.

Stimulus money also salvaged summer school for 80 high-schoolers in South Carolina's Anderson District One, located in a former mill area. The money even enabled officials to pay students a stipend to take a combination of academic and job-preparation classes. Normally summer school costs $300, and "without the grant, it would be a big hurdle for [these students] to stay on track to graduate," says Brian Couch, principal of Palmetto High School.

One physical science credit is all Trey Wood needs to get his diploma. When he heard about the stipend, he says, "I thought, it's not going to happen, it can't be that good." But soon he'll be able to use the money to fix his truck so he can work full time maintaining properties that banks have taken over.

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