Summer off and on

April 28, 2004

THE DECISION was painful but tragically inevitable: This year, summer school is a casualty of the city school district's financial troubles.

Though initially poorly planned, and ultimately too expensive, summer was valuable for some students. The district relied on summer school to help about 25 percent of failing elementary and middle school students and many high-schoolers advance a grade, since social promotion standards were changed three years ago.

It may not have been the most cost-effective or successful reform, but it gave the city a jolt: Until summer school was launched, who realized that up to 40,000 children a year were struggling to complete a grade? And what will become of them now?

The district has temporarily eased promotion standards. While this may help some move ahead a grade, many still will be held back without the last-chance opportunity that summer school afforded.

So the district now must rethink its entire approach to failing students and remediation, a tough challenge. It must identify and intercept failing students much earlier in the year, do a better job of matching their needs to tutoring or specialty curricula, and figure out how to track their progress. And by now, one hopes school officials have learned they must target the aid, rather than launch another costly mass attack on the problem.

This hiatus also should be the time to investigate options: The proposed collaboration with Baltimore community colleges to offer for-credit high school courses during the summer is an inspiration, and the district has been wise to set aside funds to help students who can't afford the fees. This privatized-subsidized arrangement should be carefully evaluated at the end of summer.

Other options: Could a consortium of area teacher colleges, with support from the business and philanthropic communities, offer summer programs at selected middle or high schools? Could certain course work be offered online? (An Indiana district is offering digital summer school this year.)

The proposed citywide summer enrichment campaign for younger students is no alternative to a formal remedial program, but can do no harm. The district is calling on day camps, day care centers, churches and other groups serving city children to devote time to reading and math this summer. The business community should rally to their side with resources and volunteers, to help battle the learning loss common during vacation.

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