As recently as 12 months ago, summer school was being touted as an important tool in helping struggling students meet new, more demanding academic standards without having to repeat an entire grade. School systems nationwide were either starting up new programs for the summer months, or packing more punch into old ones.
What a difference a year and a recession makes.
As districts nationwide are being hit with budget constraints caused by a drop in tax revenues during the past year of economic slowdown, the ax is falling on anything perceived as an "extra." And in a number of school systems, that means summer programs are either shrinking, or disappearing altogether.
This year, for example:
Washington D.C., has cut summer-school enrollment 50 percent.
In New York City, a proposed $25 million budget cut would decrease summer attendance by 35,000.
In Kansas City, Kan., summer school may be eliminated altogether.
Some educators find it sadly ironic that such cuts are becoming necessary shortly after the passage of the federal education bill, which requires standardized testing and puts more pressure on schools to ensure that all students meet the new goals. A determination to "leave no student behind," they say, depends on exactly the kind of programs that are now disappearing.
"We were actually looking to expand summer school, to go in the opposite direction on this," says Ray Daniels, superintendent of the 20,000-student Kansas City, Kan., school district.
For the past couple of years the district offered a new "Jump Start" summer program at five elementary schools and saw significant academic improvement.
"Now we're looking at cutting that altogether," says Mr. Daniels. "These kind of cuts always affect the kids who need help the most."
However, despite the surge of popularity in summer programs over the last few years, there has never been widespread agreement on the question of their efficacy. But now, even some past critics are questioning the wisdom of removing a possible avenue for help at the same time that students are under more pressure to prove themselves on standardized tests in order to advance from grade to grade.
"I've seen some very bad summer schools and those should be eliminated," says Norman Newberg, a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "But even if summer school is an imperfect tool, it's still one ... that prevents retention in grade and keeps a child's education moving."
Summer school leaped into the headlines several years ago when the Chicago school system moved to stamp out social promotion the practice of pushing students from grade to grade whether or not they could meet basic academic standards. Summer classes were created to prevent large numbers of students from being forced to repeat grades.
Although questions have always lingered as to the effectiveness of the Chicago program, the concept quickly garnered national attention and inspired many imitators.
Now, with the newly enacted federal education bill forcing heavier reliance on standardized testing, some educators say tools like summer school are even more important because they offer help for students not able to make it past the year-end tests.
"If we are going to make the standards higher and eliminate social promotion there's got to be some safety net," says Professor Newberg.
If not, he predicts, the number of students being left behind each year will quickly swell and create problems few schools are prepared to deal with.
Some districts are struggling to do the least damage possible. In Chesterton, Ind., the Duneland school district is hoping a state loan will make it possible to preserve at least half of its summer academic program. The school system has been hard hit by the bankruptcy of the Bethlehem Steel Corp., the county's largest taxpayer and source of 40 percent of the local school budget.
"There's no question but that [curtailing summer school] creates a difficulty for us," says Stephen Hewlett, superintendent of the Duneland School Corporation. Indiana does standardized testing at grades 3, 6, 8, and 10, and "to have some program for students at those levels is important."
Requiring large numbers of students to repeat a full grade is far more expensive than offering a summer program, points out Harris Cooper, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
"In many ways what is saved by eliminating summer programs is a false savings," he warns.
However, Professor Harris is quick to agree with some critics of summer programs who question if they've ever been treated seriously enough to make a real difference. The mere fact they're quickly eliminated when budgets get tight says something about the way they're regarded, he says.
"They're still viewed as add-ons ... " he says. "And that has implications for their effectiveness."