Push to revamp summer session is right on time

The Education Beat

March 05, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE CITY school officials want to end "social promotion" and to send thousands of kids to summer school for the help they need to catch up.

Let's hope it works, and that the state will come through with the millions needed to do the job right.

The cancer on the system is the shocking number of students who reach high school without knowing how to read or write.

Only three days before school officials announced their proposed package of "interventions" -- including vastly expanded summer school -- a group of educators and policy-makers met for a day at the Johns Hopkins University to discuss the right way to "do" summer school.

It was a felicitous coincidence.

Sometimes it's best not to be first, and Betty Morgan, the city's chief academic officer, says she's happy the city can learn from the mistakes made by Chicago, New York, El Paso and other urban systems that have led the way with large-scale summer programs.

Here, according to the conference participants, are some of the lessons learned:

The more people try to make summer school mandatory, the more dismal the experience. Last summer, New York required summer school for 35,000 failing third-, sixth- and eighth-graders, but about 14,000 didn't show up. This meant 21,000 students in those three grades had to repeat. Chicago had a similar experience.

If summer school is more of the same curriculum, more of the same teaching, the experience also will be dismal.

If the curriculum is current and exciting, if teachers are engaged, if they are paid well, if parents are involved and if expectations are high -- a bunch of if's -- children will want to attend. Parkway School District outside St. Louis, Mo., has a waiting list for its summer programs, but they are neither mandatory nor remedial.

Effective summer school can cut down on "summer loss," the decline in skill and knowledge during the three summer months. Yet few school districts say they think of summer school as a way to reduce summer loss.

Research noted by Geoffrey D. Borman, a Hopkins research scientist, says that the "average" child loses a little more than a month's worth of knowledge in math and reading combined over the summer.

Kids from middle-income families gain slightly in reading, while children from low-income families show large reading losses -- a difference equivalent to about three months.

The most dramatic finding, says Borman, is that the gap between middle-class and low-income children widens each year without summer school, but if poor kids get summer instruction, they don't fall behind, and might close the gap.

The "interventions" listed by Morgan and her colleagues last week surely will fail if they don't improve instruction in the regular school year and provide continuity between the regular and summer curricula.

Baltimore has an experiment in its back yard that officials might want to investigate. Six years ago, Robert Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore shifted to a "year-round" calendar with four 45-day sessions, each followed by a 15-day "intersession," plus a monthlong vacation in July.

Coleman started the program with great fanfare and a ceremonial visit from state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who said the new calendar would cut summer loss.

But two years later, Coleman was placed on the state's reconstitution-eligible list, and performance scores languished.

Until last year, when Coleman's reading scores jumped dramatically in third and fifth grades. Some experts say it takes five or six years for a reform to show up in test results.

Could it be?

Teacher recertification offered through Internet

Maryland teachers who need reading courses for recertification will soon be able to take some of them online.

The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and Frostburg State University last week launched the Online Academy for Teacher Recertification that will allow teachers to update skills without visiting a campus. All they'll need is a computer with a modem and access to the World Wide Web.

Most of the state's 48,000 teachers need to recertify every five years, and Maryland has added to the required reading course list of elementary and secondary teachers.

UMUC is one of the world's largest online universities. The courses will be taught by Frostburg professors trained in UMUC's faculty training program.

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