Second Chances at Summer School


Summer schools across Southern California are brimming with elementary and middle schoolers whose academic work wobbles on the edge of holding them back a grade.

In Orange County, more than 21,000 children considered at risk are enrolled in summer sessions that concentrate on reading, writing and math. The numbers are likely to rise. Four of the county's 25 affected school districts had no figures yet on the number of students whose academic work had forced them into the classroom this summer; others had only partial figures.

Garden Grove schools alone have about 9,000 students in summer classes--nearly one-fifth of the district's total enrollment--who are working below grade level and are considered at risk.

The high number of sign-ups comes as more school systems institute their own policy to implement a state law aimed at ending social promotion--sending students to the next grade whether or not their work is at grade level.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, a projected 10,700 second-graders and 4,500 eighth-graders who fell short of state standards and stand a chance of not being promoted are required to attend summer school, which begins July 9. The district is focusing on two grade levels this year as it phases in the retention component of its policy: Those students must show marked improvement in summer school or they will be held back. Third-grade students will be phased in next year.

The district also has 166,000 struggling second- through eighth-grade students who were encouraged--but not required--to attend summer school.

"I think [the policy] is really focusing everyone and putting additional emphasis on the fact that students have to reach a certain standard before they're promoted to the next grade," said Sue Shannon, assistant superintendent of elementary instructional support services for Los Angeles Unified.

Of 8,300 second-graders in the district who were required to attend summer school last year, Shannon said, "we still ended up retaining 6,400 of those."

For many students, summer school represents a last chance to prove they're ready to move on to the next grade. But for others, it's one more step to help bring them up to state standards in math and language arts.

"I actually love it," said Sarah Rennaker, a Buena Park sixth-grader who is among more than 1,000 at-risk students in her school district attending summer school. "I want to learn to do more stuff to get ready for seventh grade."

A poor reader who struggles with comprehension, the 12-year-old was reading at a third-grade level last fall. But after spending an hour a week in a before-school reading tutorial throughout the school year, she's brought her reading up to fifth-grade level.

"I'm very fortunate that my kids were able to attend the summer school program," said Sarah's mother, Robin, whose son Tyler is attending the same summer school. "If they didn't have this extra help, it's hard to say where they'd be. If you don't read, you don't go very far."

Signed into law in 1998, the state policy banning social promotion required each school district and county board of education to approve a promotion and retention policy and to identify students who should be retained or are at risk of being retained. The law also called for the appropriation of an initial $105 million for supplemental instruction for those students. This past year, the state allotted $55 million for the promotion and retention program.

The law did not require districts to provide the state with promotion and retention data, however, so there are no firm numbers on students held back or in summer school.

"Based on anecdotal information we receive, it's clear that the districts are sending an awful lot of kids to summer school," said Doug Stone, spokesman for the state Department of Education. "The whole purpose [of the policy] is to have students stay on track with grade-level standards before they are allowed to move on to the next grade."

In Orange County, some districts are holding students back a grade and sending them to summer school as well.

In the Garden Grove Unified School District, approximately 800 students who will be held back have been pre-enrolled in summer school.

"We're just giving them another opportunity to improve their skills," said Nancy Fyson, director of K-12 educational services for the district.

This year, the Garden Grove schools began a districtwide promotion-retention program targeting the third, sixth and eighth grades.

Affected parents were notified last fall that their children were at risk for retention and were given the opportunity to participate in intervention programs to boost skills throughout the school year.

"This is the first year we've made a really dramatic shift: Rather than having students being encouraged to attend summer school, they have been selected for summer school," Fyson said.

Similarly, summer school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District is but one of a string of programs to help students throughout the year, using state funds.

"If they needed to be retained, you could not give them enough in three weeks [of summer school] to change that forecast," said Bonnie Swann, director of elementary education for Newport-Mesa Unified, which has 1,057 at-risk students in summer school, about the same as last year.

"We actually call our interventions Whatever It Takes," Swann said. "We've always wanted to do more for kids, but the budget was always so tight."

The Buena Park School District is having success with a new program aimed at students who have been retained or are in danger of being retained. It began last fall in seven schools.

The district-funded program, Gaining on Academic Learning (GOAL), "was created as an alternative to that old term 'retention,' or failing," said Marilou Ryder, assistant superintendent of educational services for the district. "We tell a parent their child is going to be retained, but we let them know they're not just going back into the second grade again and doing it all over."

Ryder said the child retains grade-level status but is placed in a GOAL program to be brought up to grade level.

A combination of smaller classes--15 to 20 students--and targeted instruction in math, reading and writing will enable a majority of the program's first 127 students to return to regular classrooms at the next grade level in the fall, Ryder said.

But summer school also is seen as an important part of the ongoing program.

"This year we did a much better job getting the word to the parents that summer school was an important piece of their child's intervention plan," Ryder said.

Ernie Lopez, 8, was an exception: The second-grader did so well in the GOAL program that although he will stay in special classes next year, he does not need to attend summer school.

"He's continuing reading on his own [during the summer] and he's writing grocery lists to me and letters to family members just so he can keep up on the writing," said his mother, Erika. "We told him he worked really hard this year and next year he can work twice as hard and his reward will be to not go to summer school again."

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