Summer school scenes

Like a lot of other students in the Boston public schools this past summer, 15-year-old Christine Dihigo needed a little push. By her own admission, Christine, a self-confident girl with a dramatic flair for reading aloud in class, “didn’t care” about doing well in ninth grade last year at Brighton High School. As a result, she got a summons to summer school for the math and English courses she failed. If she didn’t spend summer at Brighton High, she would be kept back a grade.

That got her attention–and her attendance. “The only time I listen,” she admitted, “is when I’m threatened.”

Like Christine, Samira Deandrade, 15, seemed to benefit from some extra time to get her act together. Samira had narrowly missed passing ninth-grade math at Brighton. But in July, she was whizzing through the material. She reveled in the smaller class size and individual attention she was getting from her teacher, she said. Other students, though, appeared less motivated. In interviews, they griped about teachers and about rising for early classes. A few tuned out or snoozed during class.

Some enjoyed the smaller class size, but others snoozed.
In the struggle for higher standards in schools across the state, summer school is one of the biggest weapons in the arsenal. In Boston, the school department spent $4 million last summer on a session that was required for 10,814 students in grades two, three, and five through nine who had not met key academic benchmarks, such as passing English or math. That’s on top of a $21 million academic-year “transition” program for struggling third-, sixth-, and ninth-graders.

Now the question is: How much help can summer school be for these students? The answer, as in many things in education reform, is that it depends.

Christine, Samira, and the others were all students in the summer session of Brighton’s ninth-grade transition program, known as the Grade Nine Academy. During the school year, the academy offered students standard ninth-grade classes plus extra time on English and math. Not all of the program’s 239 students last year were required to attend summer school, but for a subset of those who were, mastering even elementary-level skills was a challenge.

Students taking English were grouped by ability, and Trudy Sawtelle, a literacy specialist, worked with the lowest group. One morning’s lesson focused on reading comprehension and “decoding,” or discerning the differences between words, parts of words, and the sounds of each. Ordinarily, Sawtelle said, students have acquired such skills sometime between the fourth and sixth grades. The vocabulary in the story they were reading and in workbook exercises was basic: rice, ice, city, chunk, noise, tooth, shirt. Some of the students were not native English speakers, and they chatted with each other in Spanish. More than half the class seemed to be going through the motions, energized neither by the prospect of being held back nor the possibility that if they pass to the 10th grade they will face next spring’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System graduation test.

Next door to Sawtelle’s class, Sonie Felix was teaching a class that was as different as night and day in content, even if the attitude of the students was still a mixed bag. The students were studying John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl. They took turns reading aloud from the book, wrote silently in their journals while classical music played, and discussed the story as a group. A few of the nine students seemed to be into it. But one girl appeared to be napping, and one boy, when asked by Felix what lines or quotes were his favorite from the book, replied: “Nothing.”

At Brighton High and across the city, summer school was in session four hours a day, four days a week for five weeks. That’s the equivalent of just 10 days to make up for academic shortfalls that had arisen over the previous year, if not an entire school career. While 80 hours is within the range for average duration of summer school programs nationally, teachers at Brighton High said it was not enough time.

“It’s not sufficient…no way,” said Felix. The kids, she said, have to “pick up skills missed way back” in their schooling. “You just have to do your best as a professional.” The small class sizes–a dozen or so students compared with 24 or 25 students in transition classes during the year–allow teachers to tailor instruction to individual students, they said. But can Felix’s students master enough material to pass MCAS next spring? “With hard work,” she said, “they will.”

Summer school can help students combat the documented losses in skills that take place over summer vacation, said Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia and primary author of Making the Most of Summer School, a recent report sponsored by the Malden-based Society for Research in Child Development. Research shows that low-income students are more likely to backslide in reading than are middle-income children, Cooper notes, so summer school “can clearly be an effective approach to serving at-risk children.” But, he warns, “It is not a panacea.”

It helps to show up. For many summer school students, poor attendance is often one reason they failed during the school year, and the problem follows them to summer school. At Brighton High one day in July, Jacqueline Doyle’s math class of 11 students was down to five–despite severe sanctions for absenteeism. Missing four days meant dismissal from summer school. That very day, the school circulated to teachers a list of students who were no longer welcome in the program.

Ann Marie John, program director of the Grade Nine Academy and site coordinator of the summer program, said she agonized over the attendance policy, torn between the need to maintain a standard and a need to help at-risk students. Some kids made a sincere effort, she said, but with 90-minute commutes from Dorchester on public transportation, some couldn’t get to school on time. Faced with expulsion because of attendance, the students would beg her to let them stay, said John, verging on tears herself.

“They’re the ones who need to be here,” she said. “Are we really doing the right thing?”

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Overall, about one-third of the Boston students required to attend summer school did not make it through to completion. Of those who finished, 62 percent were promoted to the next grade. Another 18 percent–made up of second-, fifth-, and eighth-graders–were assigned to transition classes. The remaining 20 percent were kept back a grade or, for older students, required to repeat courses from the previous year.

The figures were more dismal, however, for ninth-graders like those at Brighton, who racked up the worst attendance of all. Just 64 percent of freshmen ordered to summer school showed up. Of those who did, 15 percent did not finish the session. Out of 1,204 ninth-grade students who did complete the summer term, only 46 percent were promoted. More than half are spending this fall going over some familiar, if still bewildering, ground.