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A New Kind of Summer School for Kids

In southeast Michigan, teens are taking classes to boost their higher learning and get ahead in their studies. But how will budget woes impact this education opportunity?

Many years ago, going to summer school carried a real stigma. It meant you had a problem. You didn't do well in a particular class or you failed the class and had to retake it during the summer, so you could move to the next grade with the rest of your classmates.

Boy, have times changed. Today's summer school – or, as some districts prefer, "summer programs" – are in place to offer cultural enrichment, broaden fields of study and allow students to earn extra credits so they can graduate early – and, yes, for some, summer school offers a chance to beef up skills where needed.

Tresa Zumsteg, deputy superintendent for instructional services at Oakland Schools, sees summer school as a real opportunity for students, whether they're looking for help or out to learn a new skill.

"In the past, summer learning programs were remediate, but now, summer learning programs offer a wealth of options to students," Zumsteg says. "Some students may need the credit or extra support with a class."

These days, though, going to a summer learning program is also for kids who want to jump-start their studies or pursue an interest. "A lot of students are trying to budget requirements out of the way to allow them to pursue a passion," she adds.

Fun in the sun?

Zumsteg points to a program at Rochester's Adams High School where students are offered a half-credit course during a summer learning program.

JoAnna Pillsbury, Adams' theater director, says the summer music theater course "provides students entering into grades 6-12 with a performance-based opportunity to be a part of a large-scale production." In years past, their (sold out) musical productions have included 100-plus students – including pit orchestra musicians and backstage tech support.

Oakland Schools also has classes in woodworking design, visual imaging and intro to robotics and culinary arts, at four technical campuses.

"Students in summer learning can pursue anything from a side interest to earning credits for college or something they're really interested in, like mathematics," Zumsteg says.

Each district decides what summer offerings to provide. But with the poor economy, budget cuts have resulted in a trim of once-blooming programs. For some, there will be no summer school.

Carolyn Rakotz, a school improvement consultant for the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency, says that many districts no longer have the funding.

"Summer school opportunities in Wayne County vary greatly, and many are tied to funding opportunities or constraints," she says. Rakotz suggests parents contact their schools for additional details on possible programs.

Virtual classes

Nancy Searing, a consultant for the Macomb Intermediate School District, says that many school districts have turned to online learning not only during the school year – but into the summer months.

These offer students credit recovery (learning required to pass a class). Beyond that, they expand opportunities by letting kids take a course, for credit, that may not be offered at their school.

Not everyone embraced the web courses when they debuted. "We had some reservations about online learning, initially," Searing says, "but we found that you don't just enroll the student in the course and leave the students alone. There's a teacher in the classroom, and it's important for student learners to have teachers available to answer questions and facilitate learning for the students."

Although options vary from district to district, Searing says MISD tries to offer classes that allow students to accelerate learning. This allows teens to breathe a bit easier during the regular school year – whether that means taking an interesting extracurricular or graduating early.

Math attack

In particular, new graduation requirements for Michigan students have increased the need for mathematics instruction. And many kids are trying to attack tough math topics during summer months.

Michigan Merit Curriculum requires high school students to earn four credits in math, including algebra 1 and 2, geometry and one course in their final year.

Marianne Srock, a math consultant for MISD, has been in charge of the county's summer school for six years and has seen a shift in offerings.

The first two years she was on the job, there were two weeks of summer school camps for fifth through eighth graders. With the new curriculum requirements in place, the focus has been on exiting seventh and eighth grade students, helping them increase their math skills in preparation for that mandatory ninth grade algebra 1 class.

"There's a big push to get them ready, so they're not at all behind," Srock says. "We changed the focus, so we are pro-active and get these kids in middle school so they are not at all behind.

"We pre- and post-assess them in the program and follow the students as they progress through high school."

All this, while seeing budget cuts has made it challenging.

"Our focus is to do whatever it takes to give the students a good high school start," she adds. "Research shows that the ninth grade algebra 1 program is critical (to success)."

College and career prep

Some summer classes are committed to social or life skills. Remember when you made the transition from grade school to middle school – afraid you'd get lost as you changed classes, or that an upperclassman would throw you in a locker? Well, the switch from high school to college is almost as scary.

That's where people like Monica Leasure come in. She's the regional administrator for career technical education in Macomb and runs a program called Early College of Macomb, where students are taught how to survive on a college campus, how to plan their time while in college and given tips on how to decide on a career they might want to pursue. With only 50 slots available, there's stiff competition.

For students who want to jump start their college experience, Leasure also administers a summer program that partners with Macomb Community College to help students focus on a career.

"We offer career exploratory classes that are a week long," she says. "The students can choose from robotics and engineering, microbiology or veterinary care."

The classes often combine learning with enjoyment. Leasure remembers one particularly fired-up group of students in a robotics class. "They got to make robots and they drove them around the hallways."

Summer school was never so much fun.

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