Washington Area Schools Buck Trends With Continued Support for Summer Programs
Monday, August 3, 2009
While school districts across the country are cutting back on summer school to save money, Montgomery County is so convinced of its value to students that it spent $1.2 million this year to expand one of its programs.
School districts throughout the Washington region are bucking the national trend by maintaining summer school classes, contending that they are cost-effective in the long run because they help keep skills sharp, especially for children without the money to attend summer camps.
"I don't know why they aren't doing it," Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said of school systems that are not preserving or expanding summer school. "It saves money, helps us keep our rigor and gives kids a chance."
The recession has savaged school budgets, and summer school has been an easy target for cuts. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country's second-largest school system, canceled its summer school program for all elementary and middle school children except students with disabilities. Most school systems in Florida have scaled back or eliminated summer school offerings. More cutbacks are occurring in New York, North Carolina and Delaware.
But in the Washington region, school districts have largely stuck to their guns, even in the face of politically difficult decisions. The Prince George's County school system laid off 275 employees and closed eight schools this year, but its summer school program was left intact. Summer enrollment and spending in Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties and the District are holding steady.
The only exception was Fairfax County, where officials have overhauled offerings in the past two years.
In Fairfax, elementary summer school was slimmed considerably from a program available to all students to one that is invitation-only for youngsters struggling to meet grade-level standards. Fewer students are able to attend. Last year's enrollment was at 3,400, down 24 percent from 4,500 in 2007. School officials project that enrollment will rise to 4,200 for this summer's program, which begins Monday.
The system's elementary summer school budget shrank 47 percent in 2008 to $3.5 million, a significant savings in a system strapped for cash. But school officials said the program was redesigned solely with educational concerns in mind.
"The discussion was not budget-driven," said Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent. "It really was driven by, 'What's the best way to meet our kids' needs?' "
Enrollment has dropped among high school students, from 5,400 in 2007 to 2,700 this summer. Five-week courses went online for students seeking additional credits and shrank to 12 days for students retaking classes they had failed. Rather than retaking the entire course, students used computer-based lessons and quizzes to target content they did not master the first time.
Montgomery received an award from the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University last month as a "Champion of Summer Learning," in part because of its program "Extended Learning Opportunities -- Summer Adventures in Learning," which targets elementary students. The program enrolled nearly 6,700 students this year, up from 4,200 in 2005, and cost an additional $1.2 million.
Weast said he would not cut back on summer programs he thinks will help close the academic achievement gap between rich and poor students and whites and blacks. He said the programs could make a big difference at a young age, before those gaps grow too large and become more difficult and expensive to fix.