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As San Diego Unified shortens its school year, it’s also weighing whether to pare back on summer school to help close an estimated $87 million deficit, joining other school systems in the county and across California where school will be out — totally out — for thousands of students this summer.

Cutting summer school could worsen academic backsliding during the summer, a phenomenon called summer learning loss, which hits poorer children hardest. If elementary or middle summer school is cut, it could force more failing students to repeat a grade, a hotly debated and potentially harmful practice.

And doing so would weaken a lifeline for struggling teens. San Diego Unified usually invites all failing high schoolers and thousands of younger students in grades 1, 3 and 8 with low grades or test scores to summer school; it used stimulus money to expand it to fifth and sixth graders last year. More than one in five teenage students went to summer school last year to make up bad grades. Program director Lisa Sheldon said excluding special education, summer school cost roughly $4.6 million last year.

Grades went up. Kids avoided being held back a grade. But budget staffers say this year, San Diego Unified may only be able to afford summer school for special education students who are legally entitled to the classes and about 1,300 high school seniors who absolutely need it to graduate — much less than the roughly 7,300 high schoolers who participated last year. The school district avoided cutting summer school last year, but deeper deficits this year may make it impossible to repeat that feat.

The hope is that San Diego will scrape together the money to keep offering summer school in grades 1, 3 and 8. But other, younger high schoolers may still lose out if no more funding can be found. Cutting summer school would mean 6,000 fewer teens would get summer classes — about three times as many as could fit into online classes with limited spaces.

The cuts could impact thousands of teens: Roughly 12 percent of high schoolers relied on summer school to boost their grades last year. Freshmen in summer school saw the biggest gains, upping their average grades by half a letter grade. That’s the difference between a D+ average and a C; the difference between staying on track to graduate or not.

“Summer school is the great leveler,” said Julian Betts, who heads the economics department at the University of California, San Diego and has studied summer school in the district.

But while summer school definitely helps students, it is underused and inconsistent even when budgets are flush. A voiceofsandiego.org analysis of summer school enrollment and grades in San Diego Unified shows that the neediest kids are unlikely to enroll to summer school and become less and less likely to go every year. Only 25 percent of high schoolers with a D average or less enrolled in it last year.

Counselors say summer jobs and family demands pull many failing students away. Summer school is optional for teens, so kids whose attendance was spotty during the school year are even less likely to go in summer. And schools’ stricter rules allow them to kick out kids who miss several days of class. Advocates for the tough love approach to summer school say it forces kids to get serious about schoolwork.

“Summer school is a privilege,” said Debra Brown, a counselor at Crawford School of Law and Business who oversees its summer school. “The kids know we’re here to take care of business.”

Others fear the tight rules just turn needy kids away, especially those who struggle with transportation or family demands. When kids do show up and stay in summer school, one in three don’t improve their grades at all. School officials say some get flustered trying to conquer the same subject in just six weeks that stumped them during the year.

That may not be surprising because summer school is aimed at struggling students, but it also shows room for summer school to improve. One possible problem is that summer school is limited to replacing the basic classes that students need such as math, English or social studies. Other classes such as art, music or wood shop aren’t offered, giving kids fewer reasons to show up.

“They should also be offering classes that make kids want to be there,” said Kim Ritchie, a Sweetwater teacher who used to teach summer school in San Diego Unified. “But I know they don’t have the money for it.”

Operating schools through the summer is also expensive, which is why many school districts have scrapped or reduced summer programs in the budget crunch. While school districts get funding for summer school, California has freed them to use that money for any purpose for the next few years. Schools from Poway to El Cajon cut back on summer school last year.

Extending the school day can be a cheaper option: Sweetwater schools, for instance, replaced most of their $4 million summer school with a $1 million push to help teens make up classes before or after school or on Saturdays. Their hope — as yet unproven — is that the new system will actually reach more kids and work better than summer classes because it happens during the regular year.

But unless San Diego Unified comes up with a similar plan to offset the lost chance to turn things around for teens, trimming summer school may only exacerbate some of its existing weaknesses. It will only reach seniors at the last minute, instead of helping troubled freshmen set their report cards right. Delaying chances to make up classes for failing high schoolers will hurt kids who are already the most likely to drop out — and who need help fast to turn things around.

Studies from Chicago have found that freshman year failure is an extremely accurate predictor of whether a child will drop out, but if a student makes up classes by sophomore year, their odds of graduating improve. Cutting summer school gives failing freshman one less option.

“If we don’t have summer school, we have to figure out how to meet their needs,” said Sid Salazar, who oversees middle and high schools in San Diego Unified.

Failing students will still have other ways to get on track, such as night school or online classes, but many schools give the oldest students the first shot at those lifelines. Some schools like Morse High give teens the chance to make up classes after school, but programs vary at each school.

And while San Diego Unified may still offer summer school to struggling seniors, a single summer usually can’t bail out kids with extremely low grades. Three out of four high schoolers with a D average who went to summer school last year left with their grades still at or below a D average and well below the C average needed to get a diploma.

The school board will decide in April how many grades will get summer school — and at what cost.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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