Chicago summer school hits grade

Underachievers must go to classes

cities copy program

July 21, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - For 13-year-old Miguel Salgado, just a handful of missed questions meant the difference between a summer of fun and one spent sweltering in Room 124.

Falling just one month short of the reading level required of all sixth-graders, Miguel ran afoul of what has become a linchpin of this urban school system's academic revival - ending the widespread practice of automatically promoting children to the next grade even if they lack the skills to succeed.

"We don't get recess and we work hard, but I don't want to do over sixth grade," says Miguel, who is hoping his five weeks of study this summer will let him advance to seventh grade at Anderson Community Academy this fall. "My mom was upset when we found out that I had to go to summer school, but I can do better."

Once widely considered the nation's worst schools, the 432,000-student system has, by most accounts, undergone a remarkable turnaround in the past five years.

Test scores are inching up. Millions of dollars have been spent repairing broken-down buildings. And the central administration has acquired a reputation across the city for business-like efficiency, replacing the superintendent position with that of chief executive officer - a move that has been copied nationally by such cities as Baltimore.

Yet none of Chicago's reforms have caught on quite like getting underachievers into summer school - an effort praised by President Clinton in two State of the Union addresses. This summer, Chicago has a higher percentage of children attending summer school than any other large system in the country, more than 45 percent.

The Chicago summer school effort taps into both a renewed national interest in preventing children from being moved along without meeting standards, as well as growing research on the critical nature of the summer months in building academic skills of pupils in low-income neighborhoods.

The results from the first four years of Chicago's program have prompted urban systems across the country to follow suit - with some trying even more ambitious efforts. A recent survey of the 100 largest school systems by a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University found that almost 60 percent require low-performing students to attend summer programs as an alternative to promotion.

For example, about a third of Cincinnati's second- and third-graders have been forced to attend summer classes because of low reading scores, as have about 30,000 pupils in second, third, fifth and eighth grades in Detroit. Louisiana also has threatened to hold back about a third of its fourth- and eighth-graders statewide unless they attend classes this summer and then raise their scores on state exams.

New York City has embarked on the nation's largest mandatory summer school effort, requiring classes for more than 300,000 elementary and middle pupils who failed this spring's testing.

In Baltimore, a plan to require summer school for second- and fourth-graders who scored below the national average on reading exams was delayed by miscommunication from school officials to principals and parents.

Yet 12,000 pupils measured at below grade level have still been strongly encouraged to attend the five weeks of summer classes, and most are. Those pupils, in addition to another 11,000 in the city's summer classes, make Baltimore's enrollment typical of urban systems, with one in five students in summer school.

Meanwhile, Maryland school officials are drawing up statewide plans to require summer classes of middle school pupils who score below grade level in math and reading in the next year or two, expecting that such students will need the extra help to prepare them for a new set of rigorous high school graduation exams.

Such interest even prompted the first national conference devoted exclusively to summer learning this week at Johns Hopkins, featuring researchers and educators from around the country.

In Chicago each spring since 1996, third-, sixth- and eighth-graders take a national exam, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and those who fall short of the district's standards are told they have to go to summer school and retake the test. Pupils who refuse to go - as well as those who fail tests again at summer's end - are held back to repeat the grade.

"Setting a standard and then holding children to that standard is critical," says Blondean Y. Davis, Chicago's chief of school operations, who oversees the day-to-day running of the system much like a superintendent. "We've changed the environment in the schools and created a new sense of accountability.

"When teachers, students and parents know the expectations, they can all work to meet them. There aren't any surprises," Davis says.

This summer in Chicago, 25,000 third-, sixth- and eighth-graders - about a third of the eligible pupils - are attending five to six weeks of required classes, four hours of daily math and reading lessons.

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