Summertime and School Isn't Easy

  • Last Monday was the sort of lazy summer morning made for just two things: swimming and sleeping away the hours. Yet by 7:45 a.m., the Carver Heights Edison School in Goldsboro, N.C., was bustling. Students, toting backpacks full of fresh school supplies, filed past banners bidding WELCOME BACK AND HAVE A GREAT YEAR. After a brief morning meeting, the classes settled down and eased right into the 90-minute reading lesson that starts each day. "I don't get nervous anymore for the first day of school," says fourth-grader Parish Brown. "I feel like I never really stop coming."

    He hardly does. Parish's school is in session eight hours a day, 195 days a year. That schedule leaves just four weeks for summer break, but it means more time for students to hone their fundamentals and pursue electives like art and music. How much more time? If Parish sticks to this regimen through 12th grade, the extra days and hours will add up to almost four more years of schooling.

    Students across the country are now spending their endless summer much like their falls, winters and springs--at school. As part of the push for higher academic standards, at least 25% of school districts--and twice that number in poor, urban areas--mandate summer school for struggling students. In Miami, Chicago and St. Louis, more than 40% of students sweat through summer school. That's in addition to the growing number who enlist voluntarily. Public high school students in Portland are paying for summer courses. New Orleans has turned students away.

    This demand for more class time has driven some educators a step further. More than 3,000 schools have retooled their calendars, sprinkling several shorter but "optional" breaks throughout the year, adding a month or two to the normal school year or even holding class on Saturdays. "Students today simply need more time to be successful," says Judith Johnson, a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Education. "The 180-day school year is obsolete."

    That school calendar dates back to the late 19th century, when family farms needed kids to till the fields in the summer. There have been periodic campaigns to lengthen the U.S. school year to match those of other nations (Israeli children attend class 215 days, Korean kids more than 220). But the U.S. has clung fast to 180 days of class time--and the full summer for lemonade stands and first kisses. But the sacred three-month hiatus may do more harm than good. Research shows that all children lose academic ground over the summer, scoring an average of one month lower on standardized exams than they did the previous spring. For disadvantaged students, who often spend summer break plopped in front of TV reruns rather than at day camps or on family treks to Mount Rushmore, the loss in reading can be twice that.

    Summer school has traditionally helped close the gap. In tight-knit classes staffed with veteran teachers, students polish the sort of basic reading and math skills that often trip them up during the year. In more than 85% of summer-school evaluations, students who attended summer classes outperformed those who did not, according to a study by University of Missouri psychology professor Harris Cooper. The benefits can be lasting: 85% of students who spent their sixth-grade summer in Chicago's program, with classes at 15 students maximum, will be promoted to high school this fall. "The intimidation factor is not there," says Blondean Davis, who runs Chicago's program. "It's the ideal teaching environment."

    That is, if the students show up. Some districts have been plagued by high numbers of absentees. In New York City, only 50% of high-schoolers scheduled for summer school have made an appearance--despite calls home from the superintendent's office. Those who do come to summer class are likely to find a change in focus. Because students in many cities must retake standardized exams at summer's end, those classes have morphed into all-day test-prep sessions. The merits of such cramming are unclear. Last summer only 40% of New York students who failed the city's exam managed to pass on a second try. Seattle canceled its summer "academic boot camp" after many students made only meager gains on tests.

    In other districts, the spike in enrollment has driven once cozy classes up to regular capacity. Overcrowding was so severe in one St. Louis district that some students had to be turned away. So two years ago, the district extended the school year five weeks across the board, dedicating the bonus hours to intensive reading instruction. The shift paid off at test time. The four schools on the new calendar raised their scores, and one landed among the state's best performers. The longer year is so popular, reports principal JoAnn Bester Clay, that some parents and children want to abolish summer break. "I don't have a real vacation, since all I do is sit home," says sixth-grader La'Chet Henderson. "This gives me something to do."

    Scholarly reviews of extended-school-year programs, while scant, are encouraging. A four-year study by Purdue University found that students on a 210-day calendar outscored peers who had fewer days even if they came from households with little education. Also promising are schedules that stick to the 180-day norm but replace the three-month summer with several three-week respites throughout the year. The shorter vacations cut down on learning losses and allow teachers to intervene when students start lagging.

    1. Previous Page
    2. 1
    3. 2