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Take No Vacation from Making Schools Better

  • 07-03-2013
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Week of July 1-5, 2013

Many adults carry memories of “the last day of school.” After an excruciating wind-down of tests and ceremonies, we walked out of our last class and emptied all thoughts of lessons. Of course, some would start up right away with summer school—reluctantly to make up a class or voluntarily to take an “enrichment” course. But still, there were at least some unencumbered weeks for sports, play late into summer nights, and sleeping in; and for the more fortunate, travel or camp.

After years of budget cuts, many school districts have eliminated or severely curtailed both summer enrichment programs and traditionally taught academic classes. Now that the financial freefall has slowed, some districts are looking to reinstate summer programs. Yet, by all accounts, any recovery of summer school programs is hit or miss, and not moving fast enough to meet the needs of the state’s struggling students.

Meanwhile, an increasing body of research shows that not giving a thought to lessons during a summer-long vacation is a seriously lost opportunity for a great many students. That research shows that the achievement gap worsens during the summer break,  and programs are often not well-enough targeted to help the most academically vulnerable. Finally, many families, rich and poor, are rediscovering summer school as a way to access creative and enriching programs (New York Times, USA Today). That these classes are the most engaging—call it fun—for students, attests to the power of breaking up schooling routines with more and better schooling—rather than defaulting to the empty days of no school at all.

The loss of summer school programs  has prompted a new statewide initiative, Summer Matters. Its mission is to create and expand summer learning opportunities for all Californians, especially those from low-income families. “Families cannot afford to be putting them in summer camps,” said Jennifer Peck, co-chair of the initiative. “You know, science camp, all sorts of enrichment programs where they are reinforcing their skills or where there’s not a lot of reading in the home or vacations aren’t happening” (KCET, Public News Service, CSBA).

Los Angeles Unified offers just 170 credit-recovery classes at 16 of its nearly 100 high schools—the smallest offering ever. They’re already wait-listed (Los Angeles Daily News). In Desert Sands Unified, students haven’t had open enrollment summer programs for about a decade. “I think just about everybody in education understands and recognizes that summer learning regression occurs, but right now, we are faced with the reality of trying to get through a budget from year to year,” said Dan Miller, district director of curriculum and assessment (Desert Sun). And in Carlsbad, a fight has erupted against a tuition-based summer program run by the nonprofit Carlsbad Educational Foundation. “School districts can’t charge fees and they can’t shift it to third parties, PTO’s and foundations. When school district affiliations charge fees, it is the same as the district charging those fees,” contends Sally Smith, who filed the complaint with the California Department of Education (Patch).

It will be interesting to watch how Carlsbad resolves its dilemma, especially since more districts are partnering with nonprofit organizations to supplement academic programs that districts don’t believe they can afford. In Southern California, districts like Beverly Hills, Claremont, Corona-Norco, Pasadena, Santa Monica and Torrance, among others, have made similar partnerships for tuition summer programs.

As always, students’ school experiences will run the gamut from exhilarating and engrossing to painfully boring—and it doesn’t matter what month it is. Schools are always searching for the inspiration and resources to assure the former and diminish the latter, and summer is a good time for that challenge. One thing is clear, though; summertime learning is necessary to maximize individual students’ intellectual development, and unequal access to it reveals the public’s slackened commitment to social justice.

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.