Chicago Turns Summer Into Student Saving Time

On a particularly steamy morning last week, the kids in David Henry's eighth-grade summer school class at Brentano Math & Science Academy here displayed the full range of adolescent reaction to heat, math and the approach of lunch. Several peered intently into their lesson books. One had pulled down his tennis visor over his nose, where it conveniently prevented him from seeing anything around him. Others had let their heads fall deskward into their folded arms, in the universal sign of surrender to an impending nap. All looked as though they would rather be somewhere else.

Yet Henry has been pleasantly surprised by how diligently the 18 students in his class have pursued their remedial work in reading and math. "For most of these kids, it's working real well," he says. Even many of the children--after understandably insisting, in a single choral exclamation, that they would rather be at the beach--acknowledge that their six weeks in Henry's classroom have helped them conquer lessons that stumped them during the school year. "It's been tough," says Renata Sims, a 14-year-old with a shy smile. "But I feel like when I go to high school in the fall, I'll be a little more ready for the work."

Sims is one of nearly 125,000 Chicago public school students spending part of their summer wading through textbooks while their friends dive into pools and lakes. Nearly 75,000 more kids are shuttling through the schools for arts and sports programs and summer camp; in all, nearly half of Chicago's 435,000 students are spending at least some of their summer day in the schools. It's all part of what might be the nation's most ambitious effort to make the schools work 12 months a year, partly to keep kids off the street but mostly to give struggling young people extra time to make the grade.

"I think all of our kids need the opportunity to learn and to grow 11 and 12 months out of the year," says Arne Duncan, a 36-year-old former deputy chief of staff in the school system (and former professional basketball player in Australia) who Mayor Richard M. Daley unexpectedly tapped last month as the district's chief executive officer.

Chicago's massive summer school effort puts it at the center of the effort to rethink the conventional school calendar. Today's September-June school year was instituted a century ago, when families needed more hands to bring in the summer crops. Today, families are more likely to worry about idle hands during the summer. As more and more cities are recognizing, schools offer a logical place to provide constructive activities for kids who might otherwise spend their time harvesting trouble on the corner.

Beyond day care, summer school programs offer another obvious benefit: more time for students to master their course work. Fred Hess, director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University, notes that one of the clearest correlations in education research is that the more time students have to study any given subject, the better they perform on tests. "One of the easiest ways to give kids more time on task is to add six weeks to their school years in the summer," Hess says.

Indeed, Henry's summer class allows for a level of personalized instruction impossible in the regular year, when students sit in classes nearly twice as large. Almost every day, he notes, some students even come a few minutes before class begins at 8:30 a.m. to get more time alone with him.

It isn't just a love for learning that keeps Henry's class motivated; there's a stick too. His summer class is a component of Chicago's path-breaking effort to end social promotion. Since 1997, Chicago students in third, sixth and eighth grade have had to pass tests in reading and math to be promoted to the next grade. Those who flunk the first test in the spring are sent to summer school and tested again at the end of the class. With some exceptions, those who fail again are held back to repeat the grade. California is now phasing in a similar system.

Around the country, a tempestuous backlash has been developing against such "high-stakes" testing; the National Education Assn., the largest teacher union, recently approved a resolution insisting that parents should be allowed to opt out of such tests without consequence for their children. But so far, that storm has almost entirely passed over Chicago. Though many parents initially resisted the testing and summer school repercussion, the system now looks entrenched. "I don't think there is any sense we should pull back," says Hess.

The reason may be that Chicago offers opportunity commensurate with the accountability it demands. It is spending nearly $40 million to provide remedial summer programs not only for the 30,000 kids who failed the promotion test (like those in Henry's class) but also for an additional 95,000 young people at risk of failing the test in the future. That massive commitment to keeping kids in the classroom until they can master their courses sends a strong message to parents and students alike. "Students are learning they have to achieve at more than a minimum level," insists Reynes Reyes, Brentano's principal. That tough-love message, and the extra instruction, have helped about 40% of the sixth-graders and about half the eighth-graders who initially failed the promotion tests to pass them after the summer session.

As those results suggest, even such a massive summer school effort isn't a panacea for the challenges facing big urban school districts. Reading and math test scores have increased since Chicago implemented these (and a series of related) reforms in the mid-1990s, but most students still read and compute below their grade level. Duncan's predecessor, Paul G. Vallas, was hailed as a savior when he took the job in 1995, then was unceremoniously nudged out by Daley this spring when the improvement in test scores slowed.

Chicago's experience is a sober reminder that there's no shortcut to revolutionary improvement in the schools. But it also shows that thoughtful, sustained reform can produce tangible, if incremental, gains. Because of David Henry's class, Renata Sims will have an easier time keeping her head above water when she enters high school this fall. And that was probably worth keeping her head out of the pool this summer.


Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at:

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