The success of Baltimore's summer school seems to prove what common sense has told educators and parents for years: Children learn when they are in a small classroom with a good teacher who has lots of time to plan and expects high standards.
In the words of school board president J. Tyson Tildon, "Hard work by people who understand and know the educational process pays off."
The success also gives city and state school officials powerful evidence to support their proposals to create tough standards for students to pass from one grade to the next. And it has prompted discussion of increasing the number of days that children who are failing must attend school.
"I think ultimately it causes all of us to look at the possibility of year-round schooling," said State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
About 12,000 city students attended summer school this year, and recent results showed that these intensive classes helped many students who had a history of failure qualify for the next grade. Middle and high school students made large gains in math.
In reading, 1,210 failing children in 19 of the city's worst elementary schools showed particularly impressive gains. Fifty-three percent of the second-graders and 43 percent of fourth-graders were reading at grade level by the end of the summer.
The school board is considering ending the nearly automatic promotion of students, whether they have mastered the skills of their grade or not -- a policy that could affect those whose reading abilities fall below the national average.
School officials say they hope that short summer instruction can help students and avoid the need to hold them back from the next grade.
"It gives us some hope that for the kids who are the lowest achievers we can bring them up to the level that they can function in class," said Betty Morgan, chief academic officer.
Grasmick said Baltimore students in particular could benefit from a longer school year because inner-city students are more at risk of failing than suburban counterparts who have better opportunities to learn during the summer.
One study of Baltimore students shows that poorer children in urban areas learn at the same rate as their more affluent peers during the school year, but that the city students lose ground to them over the summer because they do not have the access to books, summer camp or other opportunities that affluence brings.
"I know everyone is going to scream. There is such a high price to it," said Grasmick. "But what is the price for children who drop out or students who end up in the juvenile justice system?"
Summer program expansion
Based on the success of the summer programs, Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Robert Booker said he intends to expand the summer school programs next year to other grades and to more students. "I have the obligation to find the money in our budget and move it to those programs," he said.
Morgan was more cautious than other educators in judging the program's success, saying that no conclusions should be made until the system has two years of data.
Like Booker, she wants to expand programs next year, and she said she wants to try other approaches. Morgan said the system chose to try different kinds of programs to see what works.
"I think this has given us the confidence to go out and take even more risks," she said. "I think it is like people panning for gold, and all of a sudden they see a streak of gold, and that gives us the incentive to go at it."
Of concern to many school officials is the apparent failure to help a certain percentage of children, even with intensive reading programs. About 30 percent of pupils in the second and fourth grades made no progress or lost ground. Morgan said the school system will have to look carefully at why students didn't learn and then adjust their program accordingly.
Perhaps, she said, they might find that students who failed to progress were those who didn't attend on a regular basis. On the other hand, the school system may need to find a new approach to teaching some children, she said.