Carolina Olivo could be forgiven for thinking school never ends.
It may be early July, but the serious third-grader is digging into schoolwork after just a short vacation. Sitting in her cafeteria at PS 48 in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, she sips pensively at a carton of chocolate milk as she contemplates five weeks of summer classes that, in theory, will boost her fourth-grade prospects.
A record number of American children - particularly those from low-performing, high-poverty districts - are marching off to school this summer. Such classes were once a last resort for small numbers of children who were falling behind. But tougher accountability measures are making them an increasingly popular safety valve for schools under pressure to meet higher state standards and avoid promoting students who can't perform at grade level.
Since Chicago led the way with its ambitious program in 1996, requiring about 25,000 third-, sixth-, and eighth-graders with poor test scores to attend summer school each year, support for summer programs has swelled.
Legislating extra school
About 1 in 5 students in America's 53 largest urban districts will be in school this July. Fourteen states have enacted legislation expanding summer-school requirements. Several programs are linked to standardized-test performance and make summer school mandatory. South Carolina, for instance, requires districts to offer summer school to any senior who doesn't pass an exit exam, while Louisiana mandates summer programs for those failing fifth- or ninth-grade exams. In Indiana, summer school is now requisite for all students not working at grade level.
The hope is that additional weeks of instruction in the summer months will be enough to boost some students' test scores and help at least a percentage of children into the next grade level.
Yet the record is still very mixed over whether this new embrace of an old-fashioned tool is making any kind of long-term contribution to achievement.
"These things get rediscovered after being ignored for so many years," says Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency in Sacramento, Calif. "[Summer school] is being treated as a panacea, but you're devoting a lot of time and resources to something that's only going to help marginally."
Researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research examined that city's expanded summer-school program and concluded that large numbers of students who were at risk of repeating a grade were in fact able to boost their test scores by attending summer school.
Their study also pointed out, however, that many of those students were again at risk of failure two years later. Such results highlight the main objection of opponents: that a five- or six-week intervention is unlikely to have a lasting impact on a student who's been struggling throughout the rest of the school year.
But some supporters counter that even if it's unrealistic to view summer programs as a magic fix, they can still function as one tool in a comprehensive package.
Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia who has studied summer programs, says it is indeed difficult to prove that failing students make significant long-term gains through summer instruction. But after looking at 99 different summer-school efforts, Professor Cooper concluded that 86 had had "positive effects" on the students who participated, and that use of the summer as a period of academic intervention is "generally positive."
The best programs, Cooper says, involve substantive academic content, planning begun early in the year, regular use of a corps of experienced teachers, rigorous evaluations, and small classes. But even a more-limited program may offer certain advantages. "In a disadvantaged neighborhood," says Cooper, "for many kids required to go to summer school, school is the best-available environment."
It also can be, he says, "a humane alternative to retaining a child."
Footing a big bill
But the drive to keep schools running year-round has raised red flags about cost. Detroit, for instance, expanded its summer program this year and saw costs soar to $12 million, up from only $3 million last year. Cooper counters that keeping a child in school during the summer costs only about a quarter of what it costs to have that child repeat a grade.
"If even a quarter of the kids don't have to repeat a grade," he says, "from an economic point of view the program is a cost-effective success."
Summer school also raises a larger debate about the school calendar. The need to have children on the family farm once shaped the long summer break. But about 3,000 schools in 43 states now offer year-round classes in an effort to stem the loss of skills that is apparent over the extended period away from books.
But while the length of the school year is enjoying new attention, many educators think the focus should simply be on reforming instruction during the current 185 days.
"Extended learning time is very important," says Amy Wilkins, a principal partner at the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust. "It's one of the mainstays of the standards movement. But if it's just the same old thing that didn't work in September through June, then we have very low expectations for June, July, and August."
Some statistics on summer school appear to demonstrate expectations that are, indeed, low. A study released by New York City's Board of Education last spring, for example, revealed that 75 percent of the third-, sixth- and eighth-graders who attended and passed summer school classes in New York last year are again at risk of failing - compared with only 64 percent of those who should have attended summer classes but failed to show.
But supporters say summer school's smaller classes and individual help are exactly what many students need.
For Victor Paz, a 22-year veteran New York teacher who is patiently guiding eight soon-to-be fourth-graders through their summer classes, the project makes sense.
"We've got some very good material, a phonics series, some good books," he says. "In the morning we begin by reading out loud, and the whole day is very structured." Mr. Paz watches as his young students bend over their desks, working on classifying the types of adjectives they've just found in a poem. "Look," he says, "it's July. If I didn't believe this would help, I wouldn't be here doing this."
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