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Education

For many districts, summer school may be casualty of tight budgets

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2011 - A lot of students in the St. Louis area may be learning a basic arithmetic lesson the next few months:

Tight education budgets = less summer school

Public school districts in Missouri may not have suffered as bad a budget blow as they feared from the Missouri Legislature, but they still have to watch their dollars closely. For some, that means that summer classes, either for enrichment or for "credit recovery" -- a fancy way of saying repeat a class you flunked -- won't be as plentiful or last as long as they did in the past.

Take, for example, Ladue. Earlier this year, the administration recommended that only credit recovery classes be offered, and those courses would only be available for high school students. No elementary or middle school students will have summer classes available, according to the plan approved by the Ladue school board in January.

In previous years, a variety of classes were offered, and the only requirement was that a minimum number of students signed up. In 2010, summer school classes cost the district $175,000, and district officials said the cost of a similar program this summer would have risen even higher.

Instead, with only do-over classes available, Ladue is expected to spend $9,000 on summer school -- a welcome savings for a district that had to lay off teachers earlier this year because of a projected budget shortfall. To save even more money, summer school students have to provide their own transportation.

All classes, plus the district's "Camp for Kids" for younger students, will be held at the Horton Watkins High School building, so other buildings can operate on a four-day work week or be closed altogether during the summer.

In the district's newsletter, Jason Buckner, Ladue's assistant superintendent for business and finance, said the summer programs had to be scaled back as a precautionary measure.

"We have to look at things very closely and avoid unintended consequences," he said. "If we offer programs not required by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education during the summer, we use time and financial resources we may need during the regular school year."

It may seem paradoxical that affluent districts like Ladue are harder pressed to provide summer programs than less well off districts. But Ron Lankford, Missouri's deputy education commissioner for fiscal and administrative services, explained that while the state reimburses school districts for summer classes on the same attendance basis as they pay during the regular school year, the money may not be enough for wealthier districts because a smaller percentage of their budgets comes from state funds, with local money picking up a bigger share.

He cited Ladue as "a classic example."

"If it's not mandated," Lankford, "they may not get enough kids who volunteer to have a summer school program. There are some school districts that honestly can't recoup their costs for summer school."

At the other end of the spectrum, the two area school districts that are unaccredited and under state control -- St. Louis and Riverview Gardens -- will be offering summer classes aimed at specific groups of students.

In St. Louis, for example, summer school will last just one month, through the end of June, but Sheila Smith-Anderson, the district's executive director of curriculum and instruction, says money isn't the reason. Instead, she cited past experience, where "attendance toward the end of summer school always took a nose dive," with families headed out for vacation or other plans.

The city schools will hold a variety of classes, targeting:

  • students who will be entering kindergarten in the fall but have not had the benefit of pre-school;
  • students in grades kindergarten through 3 whose skills aren't as sharp as they should be;
  • students in third and fourth grade who need help in communication arts;
  • middle-school students who will get help for the transition to high school;
  • and students who did not take the required end-of-course tests in algebra or English literature.

And, there also will be the popular credit recovery courses, because "we want to give students every chance to graduate," Smith-Anderson said. She said no students are allowed to walk at their graduation ceremonies unless they have actually earned all the credits they need.
All of the SLPS summer school programs are offered free of charge, she added. Altogether, she said, "It's not a full-blown program, but it's by no means a minimized program."

In Riverview Gardens, Patricia Johnson, that district's executive director for curriculum and instruction, said the summer program will concentrate on what she called the pivotal year of fourth-graders, particularly those who are reading at least two grades below grade level.

Johnson said the importance of reading at that age cannot be overemphasized. "From kindergarten through second grade," she said, "students are learning to read. From then on, they are reading to learn."

In other programs, Riverview Gardens students who are going into middle school and those going into high school will have orientation classes that are voluntary but recommended. For credit recovery classes, the district will run two sessions, from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 10:05 a.m. to 12:35 p.m., both at Central Middle School because of construction going on at the district's high school.

For enrichment, Johnson said the district will offer Project Lead the Way, a federally funded program for incoming ninth graders focusing on engineering and computers.

A sampling of other districts shows how tight education budgets have affected summer programs.

In Ferguson-Florissant, for example, a summer program that cost $1.1 million in 2009 was cut by more than half last year, down to $500,000, by offering fewer classes at fewer sites taught by a fewer teachers. This summer, the district is contracting even more, with a program costing $400,000.

In Ritenour, about 720 students are expected to take summer classes this year, half the number served last year, with the biggest cost reductions coming from transportation — no buses will be provided — and fewer teachers. The program is projected to cost $165,000, which is $400,000 less than last year.

No enrichment classes will be offered, and high school credit recovery classes will be conducted online, where fewer teachers are needed. In kindergarten through 8th grade, courses are targeting students who need extra help academically.

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