Circus Arts and 'Pondology': So This Is Summer School?

No longer the realm of the remedial, summer classes are a hot pick with kids

In the good old summertime, many young Americans turn their thoughts to sun, sand, and skateboards. But more kids are finding themselves bound for summer school, even if they don't want or need a head start on algebra.

Gone are the days when summer school was a social stigma; now it's a fashion statement. Stroll through a local summer school and you'll see the typical roomful of teens, looking skyward, moping through remedial geometry. But next door, the attitude may be different, as students take Modern Literature for extra credit. Even primary school kids are getting into the act, taking enrichment courses called Kitchen Chemistry and Fun With Math.

Across the country, demand for summer school is on the rise, especially at the primary-school level. In Natick, Mass., for instance, a summer enrichment program for primary schoolers has grown from 75 applicants in 1991 to 400 this year. Enrollment in the elementary and middle school program in Shawnee Mission, Kan., has hit 6,000, and has shown signs of growing even more.

"Enrollment doubled every year for the first three or four years [of the summer program]," says Jim Lockard, a teacher in the Shawnee Mission Summer Enrichment Program. "It seems to be providing just what parents want, which is to keep their kids' brains working."

Enrichment programs tend to repackage math, science, and reading courses to make them fun, and few parents seem to mind, says Kathleen Kattany, director of the summer program in Natick. Remedial classes that help elementary and middle school students catch up are still the backbone of most summer programs, but the biggest growth area has been in enrichment.

"Parents don't enroll kids so they can do long division for the fall," she says, "not when they can learn to juggle and do magic."

The reasons for sending kids to enrichment programs are as varied as the programs themselves. Some parents hope their kids will get a leg up in an increasingly competitive world. Most, though, like Nancy Hansen of Natick, see summer school as a safe, productive environment where education is a happy consequence.

"My kids come home around noon and they've done industrial arts, culinary class, and something called 'pondology' [the study of a nearby pond]," she says, as three kids pile out of her minivan and race for the school door. "Other camps end at 3 p.m., and they come back all sweaty."

The overall growth in summer programs may show that parents are demanding an expansion in the traditional 180-day school year.

"We're stuck on this notion of school being for eight months, but that's just one way at the school year," says Bruno Manno, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Some school districts are experimenting with year-round schedules, where teens study for 45 days, then get 15 days off, all year long. Other districts are adding another 20 days to the school year to be sure more material gets covered.

In Natick, Jed Stefanowicz teaches science with a little sleight of hand in Circus Arts class. Called "Mr. S" by the grade-school set, the Natick third-grade teacher says he explains scientific principles such as gravity and surface tension through juggling and magic tricks. "Hopefully," he says, standing on three-feet-high stilts, "they'll come out feeling talented."

In Karen Nemecsky's crafts class, Nicholas Javre, a fifth-grader, is diligently weaving potholders, but his mind is on the computer class in another half hour.

"Usually, we play lots of computer games, but today there is a competition," he says with a glint in his eye.

His sister, Stephanie, who will enter first grade in September, says she will be reading several classic children's books in which mice are the main characters.

"It's called Mouse Tales," she says in a near-whisper. "We read a story, then we make up a game that's almost the same as the story."

At the next table, third-grader Evan Boroff has just finished a potholder with aqua, purple, and orange strands. "It's easy. All you do is follow my head," he says, bobbing his head to demonstrate, "over, under, over, under...."

Enrichment courses are less popular with the high school crowd, since many teens have their minds on jobs. Ambitious college-bound students often take advanced courses in the summer to enhance college applications - and some private schools and universities have accommodated them with innovative courses.

At the Kent Denver School in Englewood, Colo., for example, high school and college students help tutor teens from low-income families. Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills, Mich., offers a Values Education Summer Reading program that school officials say is "not preachy." And at the Cate School in Carpenteria, Calif., high schoolers can focus on Asian studies, including Chinese or Japanese language.

In the heart of the Corn Belt, teens can even wrestle with world peace. Those attending a three-week global issues "camp" at Indiana University in Bloomington can play computer games that simulate the problems of shrinking food resources and hear lectures from State Department officials, a US congressman, and even the Dalai Lama.

Like their private competitors, public summer programs derive most of their funding from tuition and receive little support from the school district. As a result, when certain fixed costs go up, tuitions often follow.

In the drab halls of Framingham High School, the tuition for a makeup course has edged up only slightly, from $96 last year to an even $100. Here, remedial classes outnumber enrichment classes 3 to 1. Some teens, like Joe Yarckin, take both.

"I had to make up an English class, so I chose Modern Literature," the Framingham junior admits bravely, "but I'm taking another course, Communications, for extra credit."

His teacher, Deborah Brown, says she has been "pleasantly surprised at the caliber of the students" in her Modern Lit class. The students choose their own novels, review new vocabulary, write essays, and even do artwork for presentations.

"Basically, they're a group of kids who skipped classes [during the regular school year]. Some are here to get ahead, and some of them are quite artistic," she says.

Over by the windows, the student mood is decidedly less enthused. There, a group of teens in baseball caps grumbles over a lost summer.

"The classes got longer," says one. "Last year they were just an hour - now they're two. It's punishment enough."

Another says it's not all bad. "[Mrs. Brown] is letting me read the Celestine Prophecy, which I got as a gift. That's nice."

Joe Yarckin agrees that the classes are long. But, he says, the class has been worthwhile. "The teacher's really good. She lets us move at our own pace. It depends on the person."

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