4 weeks to make the grade

Summer: School systems from New York to California are using the time to help children who have fallen behind.

July 15, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Under the watchful eye of teacher Lisa Marie Schifano, the drive to toughen school standards and end social promotion took a big leap forward this week in a second-floor classroom at Public School 172.

More than 60,000 low-performing New York City third-, sixth- and eighth-graders began a mandatory month of classes, and those who don't pull up their reading test scores won't be allowed to advance in the fall. It is the largest of the growing efforts by school systems across the nation to hold students accountable.

"I've got four weeks to help them improve," says Schifano, walking among the half-dozen pupils assigned to her for the summer.

The time of reckoning will be Aug. 4 and 5, when 8-year-old Alexis Sandoval and tens of thousands of pupils across New York City retake their reading and math exams. "I hope I do OK," confides Alexis, one of Schifano's students. "I don't want to do third grade again."

In the past, such pupils often would have been passed on to the next grade, moving ahead without being able to do the work. But not any more, here in New York -- and perhaps, within two years, not in Maryland either.

Across the country, educators, school boards and state legislatures are increasingly requiring pupils to prove they can meet standards -- particularly in reading -- or be forced into summer schools. Those who refuse to attend, as well as those who don't make the grade during the summer, are more and more being kept behind.

"School districts are saying that if 180 days weren't enough to teach students, thenit's time to use the summer for those who are behind," says Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri who recently completed a comprehensive review of 39 summer learning studies. "What's clear is that kids can learn during the summer. And with an intensive program, many can even catch up to grade level."

In Chicago -- now into its fourth year of mandatory summer school -- 40 percent of all third-graders and a significant share of sixth- and eighth-graders are being required to take six weeks of summer classes. That percentage could increase to half of all first-, second- and third-graders by next summer under a proposal from Chicago's mayor.

"I think it's having a tremendously good impact," says Barbara Buell, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, a nonprofit agency. "I think the jury is still out on what they're doing with those kids who are being held behind, but for a lot of kids, the extra attention during the summer is really helping them achieve more."

On the West Coast, almost a third of the 51,000 pupils in Oakland, Calif., are enrolled in mandatory classes this summer because of low performance -- a preview of what will take place in California next summer under its legislature's recent ban on social promotions.

Under that law, California students below standards at the end of second through fifth grades -- as well as when they're entering high school -- will be held back. Districts will be urged to hold classes in the summer and after school to help those who are failing.

Mandatory summer school is not limited to big, urban districts.

By next summer, for example, school systems across rural Idaho will have summer reading camps, with struggling young readers strongly encouraged to attend or risk being forced to repeat the grade. Ohio legislators also have required that, by the summer of 2002, fourth-graders who fail the state's reading test will be sent to summer school or held back.

In Maryland, state educators are beginning to consider similar requirements for all 24 of the state's school systems. A plan before the State Board of Education would force all low-performing eighth-graders to attend summer school or be barred from entering high school.

Educators estimate perhaps half of the 62,000 Maryland pupils entering seventh grade this fall could end up in mandatory summer school in two years. Under the plan, local school systems also would have to set up standards for third-, fifth- and seventh-graders to be promoted -- and require summer school or after-school help for those behind.

"There needs to be consequences for students," says Margaret Trader, Maryland's assistant superintendent for instruction. "But in retention or summer school, it's just not enough to run kids through a program that they already failed once. You have to try to do something new."

In New York City, Chancellor Rudy Crew had proposed putting social promotion standards in place for the summer of 2000. But the popularity of the idea -- and pressure to toughen standards and fix sagging reading scores -- prompted implementation to be pushed up.

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