Schools hope classes will close skill gap

20% of city pupils expected to receive summer instruction

Dictated by new policy

Angry parents say warning that children need help was late

June 25, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

This summer, Baltimore children will grab their backpacks and return to school in unprecedented numbers for classes mainly designed to help them catch up to their peers.

With one in five children - nearly 23,000 - expected to be back in schools for at least a month, Baltimore is joining a growing number of large urban school systems using the summer to boost achievement among low-performing students.

Some 60 programs, from summer camps and cultural enrichment classes, are offered to help potential dropouts and homeless children. Most will help children "close the skill gap," said Sherry D. Collette, curriculum and instruction officer.

The reason for the surge in student numbers is a new policy that all but requires summer school for second- and fourth-graders who are reading below the national average. Some 12,000 of these pupils have been strongly encouraged to attend a five-week program that begins tomorrow in neighborhood schools throughout the district.

The near-mandatory nature of the program has angered many parents, who say they were given no indication that their children needed extra help during the school year. They don't understand why the school system waited until two weeks before school ended to notify them, or why so much emphasis has been placed on a single test - the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills - to determine whether their children will attend summer school or be passed to the next grade.

James Smith, a second-grader at Ashburton Elementary School, passed all his classes, but his parents learned only recently that he should attend summer school because he hadn't scored well on the reading portion of the test.

His father, Richard A. Thompson, is upset not so much by the thought that his son needs extra help - he had planned to send James to some academic program - but with a process he views "as so underhanded."

Thompson said he will be sitting in his son's classroom on the first day of summer school to keep an eye on what is being taught, and is considering sending him to a private program.

Parents and nonprofit advocacy groups also complain that the school system is prepared to hold back thousands of children next year based on a new policy that wasn't supposed to take effect until later.

In the fall, the school board voted to end the widespread practice of promoting students who hadn't mastered the necessary skills, but the policy required that the school system offer extra help to students during the school year, said Michael Hamilton, president of the Parent and Community Advisory Committee. "I object to retention until we have done the spirit of the policy. At this stage, I just think it is ridiculous, particularly to students who have been identified as honor roll," said Hamilton.

Lack of air conditioning

By the end of the summer, parents might be protesting more than just the academic requirements.

The school district will keep open nearly every elementary and middle school, as well as many neighborhood high schools, even those without air conditioning. School officials acknowledge the problem and hope to alleviate it with a plentiful supply of fans.

In addition to the elementary school programs, the school system will provide help to middle-schoolers struggling to pass the state's functional math, reading and writing tests. To prepare those pupils for the tests, the schools will reteach the fundamentals with the help of computers, Collette said.

The school district also will offer some programs to support students in high schools who are likely to drop out, are ill-prepared to handle the work, or who have failed courses.

Potential dropouts targeted

In an effort to reduce the 50 percent dropout rate in neighborhood high schools, six schools are running one-month programs for seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders who have a history of poor attendance, come from low-income backgrounds and are struggling in school.

For homeless children and teen-agers who might otherwise spend their time on the streets, two camps will help them with social and academic skills.

Some schools, such as Mount Royal Elementary and Middle School, not only are holding basic remedial classes for elementary and middle school pupils, but are targeting special groups. Prospective kindergartners can be evaluated and learn the basics for next year. Those who need a boost in math can take "Math All Summer."

Although most of the programs this summer are aimed at helping students catch up, there is one that allows high-schoolers to explore different career options - including carpentry, culinary arts, cosmetology and the health fields.

In the future, the school system hopes to offer a little something for everyone - classes to stretch students to explore the arts, music, science and math, Collette said.

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