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The Learning Curve: School's in for Summer (Just Not in Enough Places)

A summer program in Chollas View is helping low-income students combat problems over the break from school. But no one seems to have money to expand the effort any time soon.

The so-called summer slide is a pretty straightforward concept. During the long summer months, kids backslide on the academic gains they’ve made during the school year.

Researchers generally agree summer sets kids’ learning back about two months. Losses are more pronounced for kids from low-income families, probably because those kids tend to have less access to books or their parents don’t send them to summer camps.

Learning Curve-01We also know there are things school districts can do to effectively combat the trend. When I looked at this issue a couple months back, I mentioned one such program in San Diego Unified:

That could look like the five-week program at Chollas-Mead Elementary, in Chollas View, where students are in a classroom part of the day, then get outside for hands-on science lessons. They play in the dirt! There’s also a physical fitness component. It’s turned out some good results, too. Parents whose kids have participated, love it. Almost all of them said their kids were more motivated to read at the end of summer.

There’s more to that program than playing in the dirt, of course. Dirt-digging is part of an outdoor science lab, where kids make connections to plants and animals they’re reading about in class. Naturalists from Groundwork San Diego deliver lessons with help from students from UC San Diego.

More than 80 percent of the kids who attend this program make gains in reading by the end of summer. Not bad at all, considering all of its students come from low-income families and about three-quarters are still learning English.

Eighty percent is a nice number. But to understand what’s working you need to step inside a classroom. These second- and third-graders won’t spend their five weeks in the program coloring in books or cutting paper into dumb little shapes. This isn’t babysitting.

You need to see little boys, in a class of six, dissecting words. Or see the principal, Julia Bridi-Freel, coast into a classroom, sit on the floor to help a girl connect letters to sounds, then stand up and model instruction for the teacher. It’s something to watch a principal teaching kids and teachers at the same time.

All this instruction is important, considering these students will likely head to Lincoln High one day. It’s hard to see anything but potential when you look at boys and girls. But for these kids – low-income students, English learners, headed to the lowest-performing high school in the district – the odds they’ll graduate high school prepared to enter college are not on their side.

Which is why the program is happening here, at Chollas-Mead. It started as a pilot project, a sort of coming together between the school district and an entire network of philanthropists and nonprofits. It’s envisioned as a way to buck the trend in high-poverty areas by focusing energies on the youngest students.

“This is exactly the kind of summer school program that we’d like to see expanded,” said school board trustee Richard Barrera.

And, in coming years, the district will be phasing out year-round schools, which means more kids will have long summer breaks. The need will be even greater.

So I’ve been curious, if a program like the one at Chollas-Mead is working, why don’t we have more of them? That happens to tie into a question from one of our readers this week.

Question: “How can San Diego Unified provide summer learning opportunities for more kids who need them?”  — Laura Kohn, executive director of the Education Synergy Alliance

Find $15 million. That’s what Barrera says it would cost to expand a program like the one at Chollas-Mead to more than 30 schools in high-poverty areas, as district officials hope to do.

One reason the literacy program works here is that the Diamond Educational Excellence Partnership, part of the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, was able to galvanize support for the program and pull together agencies like the school district, YMCA, UC San Diego and the city of San Diego.

But even with partnering agencies donating staff time or facility use, it gets expensive paying teachers to run class over the summer, which accounts for the bulk of the costs.

This year, the district put up $150,000 for the program at Chollas-Mead – which runs for five weeks – and a shorter, budget-friendlier version of the program at two other elementary schools. That’s a blessing and a bummer. It’s good the district is investing to expand the program, but research says kids benefit most from high-quality summer programs that last six weeks.

There was a glimmer of hope that the city would step up this year provide additional funds.

Councilmember Myrtle Cole, whose district Chollas-Mead falls into, seemed sympathetic. In her budget request to the mayor’s office, Cole asked that additional funding for the program be included in the city’s annual spending plan.

Councilmembers David Alvarez and Marti Emerald also signed off on it. But support from less than a majority of Council members wasn’t enough to move the issue forward.

Still, Barrera says a summer literacy program is a completely appropriate investment for the city to make.

Education drives neighborhood vitality, Barrera told me. And since the city’s budget forecast is looking brighter, now would be a good time for the city to up its support for schools, he said.

He’s thinking $7.5 million is a fair number. Funding summer programs at 30 schools would cost about $15 million. San Diego Unified could pay one half, the city the other.

That was news to the Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office. Spokesman Charles Chamberlayne pointed to the $501,000 the city is already investing to keep expanded hours at city libraries. A number of educational programs are operated at libraries during those hours (including, in small part, the one at Chollas-Mead).

“That’s a half-million dollars!” Chamberlayne said. “Are you asking about funding on top of that? We’re confused as to where this request is even coming from.”

That answer doesn’t do much for Barrera.

“The funding for the libraries is the core responsibility of the city,” he said. “I’m glad to see the city is fulfilling that. But the city can do more to partner with our district during the summer. And this is a model program that the city has an opportunity to invest in.”

The role the city of San Diego actually plays in educating kids, and the role it should play, is part of a larger conversation. Unlike mayors of other major cities like Los Angeles or Chicago, San Diego’s mayor has no formal role in the school district.

The point is, if San Diego Unified is counting on a gift from the city to help fund summer school, it doesn’t sound like that’s happening anytime soon. So that brings us back to square one.

The district doesn’t have the funds to operate summer reading programs districtwide. When it finalized its budget for this year, the district was still facing a $34.6 million shortfall.

But Barrera’s optimistic that as the governor sends more money to school districts, as he’s promised to do through the Local Control Funding Formula, enough cash will be freed up in the next three to five years to have a literacy program like the one at Chollas-Mead at 30 schools.

That’s the extent of the plan. When it comes to expanding summer literacy programs to all students who need it, a school board member’s optimism will have to do for now.

Ed Reads of the Week

• A Special Education Dilemma (The Atlantic)

There’s been a lot to dislike about No Child Left Behind. Schools and districts that failed to make progress on standardized tests faced severe sanctions. Teachers complained that frequent testing took time away from actual teaching.

So it was to much fanfare that Congress voted to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law on which No Child Left Behind is based.

It’s not done yet. The House and Senate still have to reconcile their different versions of the bill, President Obama has to sign it and details of the new testing requirements are yet to be ironed out.

Still, both versions of the bill give schools and states more flexibility to exclude certain kids from testing. This, The Atlantic says, could bring unintended consequences for students with special needs. By excluding them from tests, parents and educators could be prevented from seeing if kids’ needs are being met.

In this story, we meet a mom who thinks her son, who has special needs, made academic progress because of required testing. Results showed he was capable of achieving more than teachers initially expected out of him.

• The Test That Can Look Into a Child’s (Reading) Future (NPR)

This is some science-fiction stuff right here. Or maybe just science. Anyways, it’s cool.

A neurobiologist at Northwestern University thinks she’s been able to develop a test that can predict children’s future reading skill long before they’ve learned to read.

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