June 21, 2008

Budget Cuts Trim Students From Summer School

By Ronnie Blair, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Jun. 21--LAND O' LAKES -- It could have been a time for celebration when Sandra Toner's 10-year-old son, Jacob, conquered the third-grade FCAT reading exam, even if he did it with a minimal passing score.

His success, though, came with a price.

Jacob's mark on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was too low for the state to consider him a proficient reader, but high enough to disqualify him from participating in summer programs that could have helped him improve.

Pasco County School District officials say money for summer school is tight, so only students who score at Level 1 -- the lowest of five on the FCAT -- are eligible. Those who squeak by at Level 2 don't qualify. The state considers Level 3 to be proficient.

"They've got this saying, 'No Child Left Behind,' but they are leaving these children behind," said Toner, whose son attended Woodland Elementary in Zephyrhills.

Toner is concerned that without the boost summer reading lessons could give, her son, who has a learning disability, will continue to struggle.

Other students in the same situation also will suffer, said Toner, whose mother works in The Tampa Tribune circulation department.

"Someone has to stand up for these kids," she said.

Pasco County schools have provided limited summer services for several years because of budget constraints, with a significant reduction in services happening about six years ago.

In ensuing years, the situation improved enough to somewhat loosen the criteria, Assistant Superintendent Sandy Ramos said, though the offerings never returned to the days when even successful students could take summer classes.

This year, as the district again faces severe state budget cuts, educators are targeting only the students who score at Level 1 for summer school.

"We are using what money we have to run the program with a low student-teacher ratio because we are trying to make an impact on the students who need it most," said Dave Scanga, executive director for elementary schools.

Ramos said some Title I schools, which receive extra federal funding because they serve a high percentage of low-income children, were able to broaden their summer programs.

Schools that don't receive Title I funds, such as Woodland Elementary, weren't able to do that.

Scanga said he understands Toner's concerns.

"All he Toner's son had to do is get to Level 2 and that's not proficient," Scanga said. "I'm sure there are a whole lot of children who could use some extra help."

Ramos and Scanga said poor readers who don't qualify for summer services will still get attention during the school year.

In addition, Ramos said the PLACE program, which provides child care at many elementary schools, offers tutoring during the summer. Parents have to pay for their children to attend PLACE.

Toner said the district should make more of an effort to put more children in summer school.

"There are other ways to cut a budget," she said.

But she has given up her efforts to enroll her son in the summer sessions, which began this week.

"I have been fighting and fighting and fighting," Toner said. "I hit that brick wall and realized there's not much more I can do."

She said Jacob won't be back in public schools come August.

Last week, Toner learned her son qualified for one of the state's McKay Scholarships, which pay for public school students with disabilities to attend private schools. She plans to enroll him in Heritage Academy in Zephyrhills.

"I'm very glad Jacob is getting this opportunity," she said.

"I think with a lower ratio of students he can get the help he needs."

Reporter Ronnie Blair can be reached at (813) 948-4218 or [email protected]


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