For Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the signs were inauspicious: Some 410,000 public school students launching into summer vacation with fewer jobs, gang feuds flaring, and street protests planned for the Aug. 26-29 Democratic Party convention.
Little wonder, pundits say, that Mayor Daley recently announced a major expansion of summer school.
Calling summer "a dangerous time of year," Daley unveiled a $10-million initiative a month ago to help pull 100,000 youths - nearly a quarter of the city's public school students - off the streets and into classrooms.
Apart from its educational benefits, Chicago's summer-school drive reflects a nationwide trend aimed at more closely linking inner-city schools with surrounding communities and social services.
"The mayor's theory is that the schools are the hub of the community, and we must intervene in the lives of children who are struggling," says Blondean Davis, deputy educational officer at the Chicago board of education. "We must keep kids off the streets and involved in learning."
Politics aside, Chicago's push for summer school has won high praise from educators as well as envy from some other big cities that are struggling to do the same thing, experts say. "Most school systems would like very much to make fuller use of school facilities over the summer," says Gary Marx, senior associate of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.
In New York and Boston, for example, efforts to expand summer school have stalled because of budget pressures and union barriers. "There is always talk of extending the school year," says Gretchen O'Neill, a spokeswoman for the Boston public schools. "But everything is dependent on negotiations with the teachers union and the money - we are already in a deficit situation."
In New York, a major obstacle is the custodians' union.
"The custodians here actually control the buildings. They get double time if they have to keep the schools open," says Ann Lieberman, co-director of a center on urban school reform at Columbia University. "The big idea now is to try to get the buildings back under the control of the principals."
Chicago's ambitious summer-school program, which will more than triple the number of students enrolled this year compared with 1995, is possible largely due to Daley's corporate-style takeover of city schools last year.
Last spring, the Illinois legislature granted Daley sweeping powers over the nation's third-largest school system for four years. A new, corporate management team appointed by the mayor then swiftly slashed spending by $240 million and balanced the $2.6 billion budget, laid off 1,700 bureaucrats and union workers, and curbed the powers of organized labor. As a result, monetary savings were available to fund an expanded summer school, while the cost of keeping schools open was reduced because unions could no longer demand steep overtime pay.
This summer, 330 of Chicago's 550 public schools will remain open as "havens" for youths across the city, while the remaining 120 schools undergo repairs.
More than 72,000 students will enroll in classes for credit, up from 22,000 last year. These will include thousands of youths who must attend a new, mandatory six-week "summer bridge" program because they failed to score high enough on standardized tests to pass into the next grade.
In addition, some 40,000 students will attend four- and eight-hour arts, music, tutoring, and recreation programs.
Next year, the school board projects about 100,000 students will enroll in the summer school alone, as the bridge program expands to include third, sixth, eighth, and maybe 10th graders.
Educators predict Chicago's policy will help improve academic achievement, especially for low-income students, who are more prone to backslide during vacations, and students with below-average test scores.
"Productivity studies in education clearly show that if you increase the number of days in school, achievement will go up," says G. Alfred Hess of the Chicago Panel on School Policy. "All kids can learn, but not necessarily in the same time span."
Moreover, "some kids forget so much over the summer that it negates part of the school year," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington.
Some cities have tackled this problem by promoting "year-round" schooling. In Los Angeles, for example, 42 percent of the 650,00 public school students attend year-round schools with more frequent, short vacations. But unlike summer school, year-round programs lack the advantage of increasing the total number of school days.