July 18, 2008

School’s (Not) Out for the Summer

By Peter Simon

Summer school is growing so dramatically in Buffalo that it's now considered a regular part of an expanding school year and a key element in efforts to boost student achievement and graduation rates.

And if Superintendent James A. Williams has his way, all city students will ultimately attend classes not only from September through June, but during July and August, as well.

Already, 10,858 of Buffalo's 37,000 students -- or 29 percent -- attend summer school.

By comparison, just 9 percent of Williamsville's 10,649 students are attending summer school this year, including many who are taking extra courses for enrichment.

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Schools have summer sessions only for middle school and high school, and 639 of those students -- or 13.6 percent -- are currently enrolled. But those students represent just 7.7 percent of the district's total enrollment at all grade levels.

Many charter schools in Buffalo -- which manage themselves independently -- have long had summer instruction for all students, and Williams is moving in that direction.

This year's city summer school enrollment of 10,858 represents a jump of 41 percent over 2007, when 7,711 students were registered.

Complete figures are not available for 2006, but it is clear that summer school enrollment then was fewer than 4,200, school officials said.

Williams, determined that urban students need more instructional time, wants the summer program to continue to grow.

"I would love for us to move to a 200- to 210-day school year for all students," Williams said.

The current school year is 186 days.

This year, the Buffalo schools will spend an estimated $6.5 million on summer school. That money will come from the district budget, federal grants and state funds earmarked for the enhancement of classroom programs.

At Buffalo's Frank A. Sedita Elementary School, 449 of 759 pupils -- or 59 percent -- are now attending full-day summer sessions that include 21/2 hours of daily instruction in reading and two hours of math.

That program offers pupils the opportunity to advance academically, to be in safe and productive environments and to avoid the "summer learning loss" that has been documented in many national studies, said Philip Friot, Sedita School principal.

The extra instruction is especially valuable there because about half the pupils at the Lower West Side school have a first language other than English, Friot said.

"These kids need to be here," said Anthony Pasceri, a sixth- grade teacher at Sedita School. "It's just a matter of time before it's all-year for everybody."

So far, the bulk of Buffalo's summer school enrollment boom represents students who are behind in math, English or other academic subjects and need to improve their test scores in order to move on to the next grade or to graduate.

Before Williams began phasing out social promotion in 2006, those students were widely promoted to the next grade even if they lacked the necessary skills.

Students working below grade level are now instructed, not invited, to attend summer school, which is formally called the Extended Learning Opportunities Program.

"We can't say we can make them come, but we can strongly recommend it," Williams said.

The theory is simple: With additional instructional time, students will do better in school and avoid summer learning loss.

A study by University at Buffalo researchers showed that 20 percent of the Buffalo pupils in first through sixth grades who took part in summer school last year improved on a battery of reading tests, and another 67 percent maintained their reading skills.

Those numbers should be considered in light of the tendency of many students to regress in their academic skills when they have two months off in the summer, said Mara B. Huber, director of the UB- Buffalo Public Schools partnership and special assistant to the UB president for educational initiatives.

"Early results suggest that [the summer school program] is a really great foundation on which the district can continue to build," Huber said.

While most summer school classes are for students working below grade level, Williams said he's eager to provide more enrichment opportunities for students already doing well.

An SAT prep course was expanded this year to 300 students from 100, and efforts will be made in future years to offer honors and Advanced Placement courses, as well as violin, piano, chess or swimming lessons, Williams said.

In addition, he said, a growing number of pupils are choosing to attend summer school even though they are working at grade level and are not required to take part.

"There's a new culture," Williams said. "Parents want their kids in summer school now."

At Sedita School, seventh-grader Juan Carlos Jones, who is already working at grade level, decided to go to summer school so he could have a productive summer and be with his friends.

"It's better than being at home or in the streets, getting in trouble," Juan said. "You get to learn things and become smarter."

The dramatic expansion of summer school has not been without snags.

Community agencies last year operated afternoon recreation programs, which at some schools were poorly organized. Many classrooms were uncomfortably warm, and teachers said instructional materials were lacking.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said early indications this year are that preparations -- including fans in every classroom -- are "significantly better."

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Originally published by NEWS STAFF REPORTER.

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