Pupils catch up on books, not play, in D.C. summer With 20% of its students back in class next week, Washington joins trend


WASHINGTON -- It felt for all the world like the end of school at James G. Birney Elementary.

Young girls in satiny white dresses and boys fiddling with their mortarboards made a jittery procession in a graduation ceremony at this school in the southeast Washington neighborhood of Anacostia.

There was just one problem: The school year was not altogether over.

In about a week, the city will launch its largest summer school program, calling about one in five of its students back into the classroom for six weeks of additional drills in math and reading. The regular school year officially ended last week, but some students will not make it to the next grade without a strong performance this summer.

The result is an end to summer as the children of Washington know it.

"For some people the summer is the time when you're supposed to play," says Raeshell Lancaster, a bubbly 11-year-old who ordinarily shoots hoops on a basketball court over the break. Struggling in math, she fears she will not move up to sixth grade next year.

"I know I've just got to get serious," she says, pulling at her electric-pink warm-up pants as she sits on the steps outside Birney Elementary with her brother, Jonte, 10, while the two take a break during their last week of school. "If I do get to sixth, then I'll just jump for joy."

Between 15,000 and 17,000 students are expected to attend Washington's summer school, at least seven times the number who attended more informal summer-school programs here in years past. The figure dwarfs most such programs -- including Baltimore's roughly 2,000-student program -- and illustrates a growing trend toward monster-sized summer schools elsewhere.

Across the country, large urban summer school programs are increasingly abundant as states try to stop "social promotion," sending students to the next grade although their test scores are too low to justify the move.

The summer school revolution began three years ago in Chicago, where the program now includes 175,000 of the system's 430,000 students. Also running huge summer schools are Philadelphia, Denver and cities across Texas.

"Students are learning that they're not going to get a free ride," says Christine Johnson, an urban school analyst for the Education Commission of the States, an education policy think tank. The schools are not just getting larger, but are getting tougher, she says.

"The practice for many years was summer school was a little easier and more relaxed," Johnson says, "but these summer programs are truly an extension of the school year."

Baltimore enlarges program

Baltimore is eager to get in on the act. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke expanded the "Supercamp" summer program this year to accommodate about 4,000 children -- about nine times the number it served in its pilot year last year. The camp, funded with private and federal money, aims at improving the reading skills of third- and fourth-graders.

In Washington, summer school is mandatory for students falling far behind in math and reading. The four-hour day will let out at 12: 30, and children will get a portion of August off before starting again in September.

Some children are going to summer school even if they don't have to, just because it seems as if everybody else is.

Jonte, who wants to be an actor, a Denver Broncos football player and a Metro subway manager, in that order, is one of 14 youths in his 21-student fall-through-spring class going to summer school. "I'm still passing, so I don't really have to do it," says Jonte, whose mother wants him to stay in school so that he will not get off track in his studies.

1,000 teachers hired

School officials say they have hired more than 1,000 teachers from public and private schools from 3,000 applicants. Summer classes will be small, about 15 students for each teacher instead of the usual 22-to-1 ratio.

"We're hoping our students can literally catch up about three months in the summer," says Elois Brooks, the district's deputy superintendent, who is supervising the summer program in 75 sites across the city. "We realized many of our students were behind and they would never catch up unless we gave them extra time in school."

For years, problems in public schools here have wounded the city. Troubled schools are a big reason that families leave for the suburbs and have prompted a federally appointed control board to redistribute power from the elected school board. This year, Washington schools opened three weeks late, delayed by city repairs of leaky roofs. Complaints about crowded classrooms, school violence and dilapidated buildings continue.

But perhaps nothing has been as worrisome as the test scores. This year, the city decided to use up to $12 million for summer schools after standardized tests showed many of the district's approximately 77,000 students were three and four years behind their grade levels.

Some parents believe summer school will make the difference.

"I just wish we had this in years past," says Monica Welch, who insisted that her children, Raeshell and Jonte Lancaster, stay back in first grade to better master those early skills. She is eager for them to stay on track. "I don't want their progress to be broken," she says, "and this summer school will continue to give them responsibility and help them reach their goals."

Structure promised

Students will get a week off -- summer school doesn't begin until June 29 -- but after that, the party's over. With two concentrated hours of math and two hours of reading, children will not have arts and crafts and sports to distract them. Students who miss three days of summer school are not allowed to return, nor are those who misbehave.

"I'm a phone call away if my students get in any trouble," says Yvonne J. Morse, Birney Elementary's principal, who will watch over her students from afar even during her summer break. "Nothing is more important to me than this. The kids lose so much in the summer -- they need this structure."

This is still school, and for children such as Raeshell, it will be hard not to daydream about sinking baskets and enjoying the summer as she always has.

"When it's summer, I'm happy for a long time," she says. "But summer school won't be playing this year. I guess that's just going to have to wait."

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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