Cutting Summer School to the Bone

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In this summer school class at Glenville High School on Cleveland's east side, about 35 seniors are looking to achieve the last few credits needed to graduate. Some are repeating coursework failed during the regular school year. Others are brushing up for proficiency tests they never passed. Those will be offered again in July.

Students drift one by one over to the desk of the math teacher, who dispenses individual help to those who still aren't quite grasping the material. Not just one, but four different levels of math are being taught in this one classroom by one teacher; group instruction isn't very practical. It's the result, say school officials, of a drastically truncated summer school program. Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett calls the decision to cut summer school "a sad moment."

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: We worked over the past three summers to make sure that we has summer school for kids K-through-12, you know, we've done a full scale summer school. This year, however, we will only have a senior high school summer school program.

And only seniors who need credit to graduate can go. It's a big cut - more than 90% in monetary terms. The summer school budget last year was $5.5 million, this year just $450,000. Not only is the number of summer school slots drastically reduced. So is the length of the program - two weeks instead of the usual six. Michael Charney, director of professional issues at the Cleveland Teachers Union, says it's woefully inadequate.

Michael Charney: This is a way to satisfy the formal credentialism that's needed for kids to graduate. There's no way that you can cram in in two weeks - even if it's extended time, the kind of knowledge to show that kids have met either the requirements of coursework or the standards. So in a certain sense, it's a charade.

And not what's needed to properly serve the thousands of kids in Cleveland who need summer school, he adds. Art teacher Andrew Hamlet, who's teaching art this summer at Glenville High, agrees it's tough, but tries to put the best face on it.

Andrew Hamlet: Well, it's like a lot of things in life, you do what you can; the best you can with what you have.

But that does nothing for kids in the lower grades, Hamlet says, who don't have the summer school option at all.

Andrew Hamlet: So when I think of the elementary division, many of the students who were in summer schools before, they're not there now and those students are not engaged they're not following through on schools that's closed, that same momentum for the whole year, so when they come back in the fall, there's a void there that would not have been there for certain students.

Many point the finger at the state government for shortfalls that lead to cuts like this one. Ohio has never adequately and fairly funded public schools, some contend. Others say state law gives too much money that would ordinarily go to school districts to charter schools and the Cleveland voucher program. Many lawmakers say they recognize that money is tight, but insist schools can make due. Robert Gardner, a moderate Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is among them. He says state aid to the Cleveland schools next year will actually go up.

Robert Gardner: It's one of the largest increases, percentage-wise, in the state. Most of them are two or three percent. So they are getting an increase in state funding. You know, I'm not telling them how to spend this money, but they've got to figure out where their priorities are. To me, priorities are the key, it's re-arranging where you're putting your dollars.

Tom Mooney, who heads the Ohio Federation of Teachers, is among those who think the state government shortchanges education.

Tom Mooney: It's one thing if districts decide they're gonna try a different strategy or we think research shows some other approach would be a better use of our funds, that's one thing. But when they're cutting summer school simply because they can't afford it and they're not replacing it with some other form of intervention, that's real bad.

And contrary, Mooney says, not just to state mandates to provide remedial instruction for failing students, but also to those laid out in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Cleveland school officials affirm Mooney's latter supposition - they say that the district can't afford a full-scale summer school program, and has no plans to reinstate one. And while there's more state money in the budget for next year, school officials say total dollars will not rise, and unavoidable increases in areas like teacher pay and health care will effectively reduce those dollars' clout.

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