Taking the 'business as usual' out of summer school

Even educators who are enthusiastic about summer school are sounding one cautionary note: It can't be business as usual.

Several school districts in the United States are taking innovative approaches, whether it's offering different subjects and teaching methods during summer classes or anticipating summer school by starting to give students focused help while the regular school year is still in session.

San Diego, for instance, is currently putting together plans for a summer program that could be more intelligently linked to what goes on between September and June, says Amy Wilkins, a principal partner at the Education Trust in Washington, D.C.

As the program is envisioned now, it would offer support to struggling students throughout the entire school year, relying on a summer program only for those who need additional help on top of that longer-term help.

One strength of such a system, Ms. Wilkins points out, is that the difficulties experienced by the kids who end up in summer school would already be well-documented by the time they arrive - allowing teachers to more carefully plan a really useful type of intervention.

California's Long Beach Unified School District takes a somewhat similar approach, beginning to work in the fall with those whose performance is weak, and deciding in March which ones will also need the summer program.

The academic work done in the summer is then highly focused, a structured set of lessons that include rigorous phonics and writing exercises.

In other districts, however, the approach is just the opposite. Instead of moving toward more extra help during the school year, they are focusing more on enrichment programs during summer school, hoping to entice students and stimulate the learning experience with interesting elective-style courses they wouldn't be able to take during the regular school year.

Most summer school programs, even if not particularly innovative, do have smaller classes and a narrow focus on subjects like reading and math. And for some students, this is enough to make a positive difference.

Naomi Herrera, a fourth-grader attending summer school at New York's PS 48, says after one day of summer school that she would already rate summer classes as "much better" than regular classes.

First of all, she says, she likes being in a nice, quiet classroom with only a few other students. And the activities are definitely more interesting, she adds.

"We do puzzles, we read out loud, we read in Spanish, we write poems," she says enthusiastically. "It's really fun."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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