High-caliber summer classes return to some Sacramento area schools

On a morning perfect for outdoor adventures, nearly 40 students filled a Pleasant Grove High School classroom Thursday preparing to measure concentrations of sodium chloride in solution.

Rather than making up a failed class, the Advanced Placement students in Elk Grove were getting a jump on their chemistry studies.

During the recession, Elk Grove Unified and other school districts found it challenging to maintain a full regular school calendar, and many deemed summer classes for high-achievers unaffordable. But as the state has begun spending more on education, districts are reopening their doors this summer to their entire population of high school students.

That means expanding classes beyond the bare-bones remedial instruction maintained during the recession, helping students get ahead and ensuring their academic skills do not wither in the summer months.

Several students in the Pleasant Grove chemistry-prep class, all incoming sophomores, said they are glad the 14-day course is being offered this summer.

“My cousin said if she had had summer school while she was in high school, it would have helped her a lot,” said Cynthia Bui, 14, as she dropped sodium chloride crystals into a volumetric flask.

Chemistry teacher Kathleen Kennedy said many of the students are taking her class because they want to load up next semester on high school AP courses, which can lead to college credits and boost grade-point averages. The Elk Grove district dedicated $3.2 million this year to programs beyond the regular academic calendar, expanding summer school to all of its campuses.

“It continues to be extraordinarily true that having an array of summer offerings will be critical to the district reaching its goals for student academic success,” said Jennifer Peck, executive director of Partnership for Children and Youth. “There is better awareness now of what is at stake in the summer.”

A lack of summer school courses leave low-income students at a particular disadvantage, Peck said. Students from middle- and upper-income families often go to camp, vacation and “live in homes rich in literature and reading materials. These kids are going to be protected from learning losses or are gaining skills around literacy. Lower-income students are exactly the opposite because they don’t have access to those things.”

Besides providing academic opportunities, summer school makes it easier for districts to provide free meals to low-income students who otherwise might not seek out food program sites.

The focus of summer school changed over the years to primarily serve at-risk students in need of remediation.

Last year, Natomas Unified’s primary summer school offering was an online “credit recovery” program at Inderkum and Natomas high schools, allowing students to make up failed coursework. This summer, the schools have 19 teachers in classrooms. Inderkum High School will concentrate on helping 10th-grade students looking for help on courses required to attend college. Natomas High School will offer algebra, geometry, world history, world geography, health and English 9.

The district also has instituted a Service Learning Summer Program at Natomas Middle School for sixth- through eighth-grade students. Leroy Greene, a district-run charter middle school, is teaching Spanish 1 and geometry to incoming students.

Twin Rivers Unified is one of the few districts that maintained a “robust” summer school program, said Craig Murray, executive director of secondary education at Twin Rivers Unified. But it is adding a science, technology, engineering and math program, known as STEM, at the middle-school level, as well as additional English-learner classes. Classes start June 23.

“We are making a transition with philosophy,” Murray said. “Summer school isn’t just a place to gain credit, it is more like a third semester and a place for teachers to develop.”

The changes aren’t limited to high schools. Last year, Elk Grove offered English-learner programs and summer classes at Valley High School for elementary school students from low-income neighborhoods. This year, younger students can take enrichment classes like jewelry-making, computing, sports games, drama, fitness and visual arts alongside science, math and engineering offerings at every elementary school.

“They are offering things that are going to get kids and parents excited about participating,” Peck said. Programs like this are “pretty rare.”

Other summer school expansions in the region aren’t as dramatic. San Juan Unified has expanded its elementary school summer program from one site to four, and Sacramento City Unified has added one primary school site, bringing its total to 17. Folsom Cordova Unified expanded its intervention offerings at the elementary level and added classes for English learners in fourth and fifth grades.

San Juan Unified will expand its elementary school program to all four of the district’s Title I schools, serving low-income students. Class sizes will be 15 students to one teacher, said spokesman Trent Allen. Classes start Monday.

Sacramento City Unified was the only district to add classes last summer, expanding its program from 2,500 to 4,000 students. The school district offers Summer Quest, for first- through sixth-grade students at 17 sites, mostly in lower-income neighborhoods. Classes start Monday.

The city district also offers a Summer of Service program in which middle and high school students earn credits for participating in community service projects. A separate SOS Ambassador program allows students to help run summer school activities, and the district places juniors and seniors in internships at City Hall.

Summer school offerings in the Sacramento region still have a long way to go before they reach the levels of previous decades. The Sacramento city district, for instance, served 16,500 students in 2001, more than four times the enrollment last summer.

“We’re still telling parents and families – even if it’s hard to find slots in affordable programs – to take advantage of the libraries and the reading programs they have,” Peck said.