IF YOU THINK it's somewhat extreme to send up to 46,000 Baltimore City schoolchildren -- about half the system -- to summer school because they're failing, think again.
Baltimore has needed school leaders with the guts to take this kind of drastic action for a long time.
And if you have ever visited a city high school class and listened to 10th-graders stammer over the simplest polysyllabic words, you know this is a necessity. You know that for far too long the system just passed kids through whether they could read or write, add or multiply. And you know that this year's class of summer-schoolers (which some say will be the largest ever for a major school district) will be better off for having made up what they missed during the regular school year.
The trick for school officials, though, is to make sure that those kids end up much better off -- and that will require more than intensive summer school classes.
It's possible, for example, that as many as half the students in summer school still won't be ready for the next grade by the time September rolls around. They should be held back, as they have been since the system started summer school three years ago.
But it doesn't make sense to have them start over altogether in the lower grade with classmates a year younger than they are. Presumably, the children who will be repeating grades have deficiencies in very specific areas, and that's where they need the attention. If they're poor readers, they could still be ready for the next grade in math or science. And if they're not allowed to advance in the other subjects, they will fall even further behind.
Right now, the system's plans for handling these issues are somewhat haphazard. Some schools may create "transitional" classes for repeaters, but others might lump them in with other kids.
A better idea -- and frankly, one that's crucial to the system's success -- would be to formalize a structure districtwide that acknowledges the possibility of many children spending more than a year mastering the skills associated with a particular grade.
Why not rethink the whole idea of grade levels (an early 20th-century concept) and come up with something that meets the needs of the school system's current population? Why not create intermediate, transitional grades designed to help children catch up and then move on when they're ready?
The system will experiment a little with this idea in high schools this fall, where some ninth-graders who have yet to pass state functional tests will begin their high school careers in transitional classes. But the real need for this exists at the elementary and middle school levels, where far more children are likely to be held back.
It wouldn't be cheap to so dramatically alter city schools, and the logistics could take more than a year to work out. But this is what the district must do for those kids who aren't learning, those who otherwise would be irretrievably left behind.
It is a debt owed to them, because with a failure rate so high, it is not only the children who are failing.