Report: Susan Frey and Raquel Gonzales
Video: Eming Piansay and Vivian Po
Posted: Aug 27, 2011
California’sgrim economic environment has hit summer programs hard, but all of the state’s 30 largest school districts still managed to offer some summer classes for struggling students, an EdSource survey has found.
In most cases, these classes enroll only a fraction of the number of students that participated as recently as three years ago. About a dozen districts were forced to make further reductions this year.
But at least three school districts—Oakland, Fresno, and Santa Ana—have been able to expand their summer offerings in recent years by creatively using state and federal funding or getting support from private foundations. Even those serving fewer students are attempting to come up with innovative ways to make sure that all students don’t fall through the cracks during the summer. In addition, all districts must offer summer classes for special education students if they are called for in their “Individualized Education Program” mandated by federal law.
The motive to offer summer classes is a powerful one: educators know that struggling students may never make up for the ground they lose during the summer. For many others, it is their last chance to make up the credits they need to graduate or to move on to the next grade.
Public school summer classes have traditionally been offered free to students who lag behind academically, in contrast to often-pricey, privately run summer programs and camps that higher-income parents choose to pay for out of their own pockets.
“The more we increase time away from school, the easier it is for students to fall behind,” said Dan Wright, assistant superintendent at Stockton Unified School District, whose summer offerings have shrunk to a fraction of what the district offered two years ago.
Yet the EdSource survey, consisting of telephone interviews with officials at the state’s 30 largest districts—which serve one-third of California’s 6.2 million public school students—also revealed numerous creative responses to the summer funding crunch.
Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento, for example, arranged for students to take online summer classes at their schools’ computer labs if they failed a class.
Also near Sacramento, the Twin Rivers School District is attempting to reduce summer reading loss by sponsoring programs each Wednesday morning for students and their families at 10 school libraries—and encouraging students to check out books to read.
In San Francisco, community organizations are trying to fill in the gaps by targeting summer programs at low-income students. For the past two years, the nonprofit San Francisco Summer Learning Network has provided training in the spring to summer youth program staff on how to integrate academic content into summer recreational programs such as cooking, kayaking, and habitat restoration.
In addition, as state funding has dwindled, school districts such as Santa Ana, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego collaborated with nonprofit groups like THINK Together and LA’s BEST to launch new summer programs, often with the support of private foundations such as the David & Lucile Packard Foundation and the Walmart Foundation.
The shrinkage of academic summer classes has been accelerated by passage of a 2008 law that gave districts the discretion to spend state summer school funds as they saw fit. The EdSource survey found that 80% of districts surveyed took advantage of their new flexibility to spend summer school funds to shore up regular school year instruction.
One of the most dramatic examples of summer school downsizing occurred at the Los Angeles Unified School District, by far the state’s largest with some 667,000 students.
In 2008, LAUSD spent $51.4 million providing summer academic classes. This year, it is spending only $3 million and is limiting enrollment to one class per student. That has translated into dramatically fewer students participating—from 188,500 elementary, middle, and high school students three years ago to 22,000 high school students this summer.
Working with non-profit organizations like LA’s BEST, the district is also able to offer summer programs to about 14,000 students at nearly 200 elementary and middle schools. They participate in what are called “enrichment” programs that involve activities such as reading, performing science experiments, dancing or playing soccer—but no course credit. In 2008, these programs were offered in many more schools, officials say, serving about three times as many children.
“The security net for students that allows them to get ahead, fill in gaps, and make up lost credits is no longer there,” said Al Cortes, executive director of LAUSD’s Beyond the Bell Branch, which oversees all summer programs in the district. “So our kids are left flailing.”
Bucking the downsizing trend, Fresno Unified has bolstered its traditional summer program by providing, among other things, evening classes for high school students who have jobs or need to take care of siblings during the day. To support these programs, the district has relied on a mix of state and federal funds intended for low-income students and English learners.
Also in an expansion mode is Santa Ana Unified, which in conjunction with the non-profit THINK Together offered summer sessions at dozens of elementary and middle schools. Some 12,000 students attended—about one-third of the district’s K-8 student population. The program was established with federal government support along with grants from several foundations.
Beginning in 2008, Oakland Unified also decided to place a higher priority on summer school by making it simpler for schools to use Title I funds during the summer. This summer, some 6,000 students participated in the program.
Oakland also works with community groups to provide low-cost or free summer programs. For parents, the district produces a guide of community-based programs in English and Spanish. With underwriting from the Packard Foundation and in partnership with the East Bay Asian Youth Center, it was able to offer programs at five elementary schools and one middle school.
“My daughter looks forward to coming every day,” said Isabelle Alexandre, whose daughter Stephanie, 8, attended one such program at Franklin Elementary that focused on health and nutrition and required students to cook, write autobiographies, and make a fitness video. “It gives them a chance to have fun and learn at the same time,” she said. Unlike her daughter, “most of these kids have nothing to do all summer.”
“At its core summer still has to be fun for kids,” said Jeff Sunshine, a program officer at the Packard Foundation. “It's a version of disguised learning. We really want kids learning, we just want them to do it in a different way.”
At the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a small public high school campus in Oakland, Allan Ahumada, 12, signed up for a college-prep program sponsored by Mills College that is limited to children whose parents have not graduated from college.
Before he started the program, “I had no idea what I wanted to be,” Ahumada said. “I was clueless.” But the Mills program got him thinking about employment and college, and he now wants to be an architect. If he weren’t in summer school, he said, “I’d be at my house doing nothing or outside playing with my dog.”
Several districts have instituted programs during the regular year to minimize the need for summer classes in the first place.
For example, Sweetwater Union High School District, south of San Diego, is providing before- and after-school classes during the school year to help students get the required credits they need for graduation. Moreno Valley Unified, east of Riverside, has added a 7th period for high school students who need to make up credits.
Some educators are hoping that fewer summer classes will have an unintended impact: forcing students to work harder during the school year.
“Principals have reported that students know they can’t just go to summer school and get an easy grade, that there is no fall back,” said Anne Zeman, director of curriculum and professional learning at Elk Grove. “So they are taking school more seriously.”
EdSource is a non-partisan, non-profit organization in Mountain View that has been providing impartial reports on California's public education system for more than three decades.