Empire editorial: Schools' summer plan is risky, but worth it

Posted: Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The Juneau School District is taking what it says is a new approach to summer school this year. It's one that could benefit those who are allowed to enroll and potentially harm those who are excluded. Still, this program is well worth the risk because of its focus on results and tangible improvement.

Known as the new Summer Scholar's Academy, most of the district's summer school offerings this year will be limited to students who are invited to participate in a blend of computer-based training in language and learning skills, and teacher instruction in reading or math. Class sizes will be limited to 10 students and that's a dramatic reduction from previous years.

The scholar's academy was born of a tight budget - less than half the amount that was available for the summer session last year - and a desire by district officials to have students make much more progress during the summer session. Because of that, summer school this year will be limited to a fraction of those elementary students who have attended in previous years. Specifically, 11 students from each of the district's elementary schools may be invited, along with 27 from each middle school and 20 from Juneau-Douglas High School.

Middle school and high school students also can pay to attend some summer courses apart from the Summer Scholar's Academy.

The invitation-only concept for summer school is new and different for the Juneau School District. In previous years summer school was open to students who weren't meeting academic standards in English and math, and the session was free to those who weren't meeting academic standards. That changes this year, when only those students who receive free or reduced-price lunches will be able to attend at no cost; the families of other participants will have to pay on a sliding scale of up to $220.

In the face of a greatly reduced budget, school district officials developed a summer program they hope will provide students with "significant positive growth for kids" through the use of computer learning methods that are supported by research. Others, however, think the new approach leaves too many kids without the opportunity to bolster their learning skills. They also worry that the process of selecting those who may participate in summer school will be difficult at best.

Much tighter budgets, at both the state and local levels, are making it harder not only to run summer school but to provide quality education in general. That trend isn't likely to reverse itself anytime in the near future. Because of that, Juneau school officials must look at how to do the very best they can with what they have, and that doesn't mean trying to manage diminishing resources in ways they have traditionally been managed.

A pay-for-play approach to summer school may not be ideal. Neither, however, are ever-shrinking budgets and cuts in services, programs and personnel at the district level. The district's approach, which is unconventional and proactive, is the right one at the right time.

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