RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

Valley High students, from left, Justin Her, Hugo Comparan and Eduardo Bajaras examine an earthworm in summer school.

Money flows to California schools, but little goes to summer programs

Published: Friday, Jul. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 16, 2013 - 5:22 pm

Restoring library hours and reducing class size are high on the to-do lists of Sacramento-area school leaders now that more money is flowing their way.

But summer school may have to wait.

During the recession, state lawmakers allowed school districts to divert their summer school money to other purposes. Though California is again spending more on K-12 education, local districts have been slow to restore summer school, focusing instead on reversing cuts to the regular school year.

"In the final analysis, the most important thing is the core academic program," said Bob Blattner, an education lobbyist. "Districts faced untenable choices, horrible choices."

The San Juan Unified School District once had 15,000 students in summer school, but this year has 5,500 – nearly half in fee-based summer camps and sports schools.

Sacramento City Unified boasted 16,500 summer school pupils in 2001, when it required failing students to make up courses. It now serves 4,000 through programs mostly funded by nonprofit groups.

The loss of summer learning has sparked concern that low-income students suffer as summer classes vanish. While wealthier families can afford summer camps and private academic studies, low-income children have limited opportunities beyond those at their neighborhood school.

"There is a large need for summer programs here," said Josh Yang, who is coordinating summer school at Caroline Wenzel Elementary in Sacramento's Greenhaven neighborhood. "When I was a kid, there was always summer school. There was always something to do. I don't see this happening anymore."

Studies show that by ninth grade, two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income minority students and their more affluent peers can be attributed to differences in summer education, according to Jennifer Peck, executive director of Partnership for Children.

Districts that don't have quality summer programs are "missing out on keeping kids engaged and wanting to learn, and missing out on an opportunity to make more of an academic impact," Peck said.

Local districts expect roughly 4 to 5 percent more money per student over the next year.

Some officials did not restore summer school in part because they were not sure how much money their districts would receive in the state budget that Gov. Jerry Brown signed at the end of June. Others decided to use the additional funds for after-school programs and hiring teachers to assist failing students during the school year.

Though a far cry from its summer school attendance a decade ago, Sacramento City Unified is one of the few local districts to increase its summer program this year. The program grew from 2,500 to 4,000 students.

The district intends to further expand the summer learning program over time, said Zenae Scott, Sacramento City Unified summer school coordinator.

The district still faces budget shortfalls due to rising employee costs and declining enrollment. It has turned to nonprofit partnerships to help fund summer school. A first- grade through sixth-grade program, Summer Quest, exists at 16 sites.

On a recent Tuesday, Anaiah Johnson, 8, was drawing stars and planets on the cover of a workbook at Caroline Wenzel Elementary. "Jupiter is my favorite planet," said the third-grader.

She is among 255 students who participate in classes and physical activities, as well as eat breakfast and lunch, at the school, Yang said.

The program is run through an agreement with the nonprofit Sacramento Chinese Community Service Center. Instructors are a combination of college students and credentialed teachers. The school district provides their training and some funding.

Organizers initially designed the program for 125 students but expanded it because of huge demand, Yang said.

Most local districts have focused their small summer school programs on helping high schoolers get on track for graduation.

At Valley High School in the Elk Grove Unified district, students used tweezers to spread open the membrane of an earthworm to reveal its heart, crop, gizzard and other organs.

"Cool," said Jocelyn Guzman, as she pinned a section of membrane to a wax-filled pan.

"I think it's nasty," Maria Cruz said.

The girls and most other students spending the summer in Robert Brockmann's class – six hours a day for six weeks – struggled in biology during the year and are trying to raise their grades.

Twin Rivers Unified summer coordinator Wendi Cowan said the importance of these summer classes should not be discounted. There are many reasons that high school students might do poorly in a class, she said. They may have to take care of a parent or hold a job.

"Giving them the opportunity to stay on track and get a diploma is huge for me," she said. "You can't get a job – even a minimum wage job – without a high school diploma. To help them get a high school diploma – that's our job."

Elk Grove Unified has 4,420 students enrolled in summer school this year. While the district is mainly targeting students who need to make up coursework, it also is offering a handful of classes for high-achieving students.

A ceramics class at Valley High School is almost entirely filled with kids involved in student government or enrolled in school academies and accelerated classes. They are looking to fulfill the district's art requirement so they can concentrate on other obligations next school year.

Cuc Phan 15, was pedaling the ceramic wheel and working clay into a cylinder. The junior will be in Advanced Placement and leadership classes next year. She expects a "really stressful" school year and wanted to get art out of the way.

After the ceramics class is over each day, she takes summer leadership courses.

"It's kind of relaxing," said Phan, noting that otherwise she might just be home watching television.

Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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