Summertime blues

Cuts in summer schools leave districts ill-prepared to meet Bush's education reforms

Last September, many of the first-graders in Lance Ozier's class could barely speak English. For these children of immigrants who have settled in the neighborhoods along Buford Highway, where there's a taqueria and tienda de comestibles on every corner, a second language wasn't a priority.

But just eight months after entering Ozier's class, they not only spoke English, they hurled strings of incessant questions at unsuspecting adults with a persistence that rivals any 6-year-old American.

Ozier liked the chatter; it's silence that he's worried about.

Thanks to cuts in education spending, there is no summer school at Cary Reynolds Elementary, where Ozier teaches. Without it, many students will have no exposure to English for months. "Some of them will come back and not know how to speak English," Ozier says.

New immigrants aren't the only ones losing ground this summer. Every school district in the state is facing budget cuts. In response, they're slashing programs like summer school, putting at further risk children who are already falling behind.

The timing couldn't be worse. The requirements of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" act are forcing school districts to do more with less. Cutting summer school — a safety net for at-risk students — will make meeting those strict federal standards even tougher.

In DeKalb County, where Ozier teaches, the district is saving money by reducing the number of locations offering classes. It's also cutting transportation to kids who don't live near the schools chosen as summer sites. Kids who want to attend have to find their own way — a tough task for poor families who either don't own a car or use it to get to jobs that start long before school.

In Fulton County, the school district will offer summer classes only to kids who are failing; Gwinnett and Cobb are doing the same. Atlanta students can still take some advanced classes but the district made the classes tougher to qualify for. Kids who are failing can take classes this summer, but only if they're failing the subject, and not simply if they want a refresher course.

While summers off may be good news for kids, it's left their parents in a quandary. Just before school let out this year, Fulton County teacher Gornata Ross had no answer for working parents wondering where they'd send their kids on summer days.

"What about these other kids that have no parent at home or who have no extra parent to take up the slack?" Ross asks. "I don't want to criticize Bush, but did he think of this? We need some money here."

The tremors of the No Child Left Behind Act are being felt beyond just summer school, however. Certain schools are required to show a 5 percent increase in standardized test scores over two years; if they fall short, students have the option of transferring to a better school or remaining where they are and receiving one-on-one tutoring. And the district must pick up the tab.

Next year, the Act will require that third-graders who fail the year-end standardized test must be held back. School officials are worried about bottlenecks in third-grade classrooms, with students held back and newly promoted second-graders moving in.

"I think we're going to have some upset people," says Melanie Brown, a teacher in Cobb County. "Some parents are going to say, 'I want my child moved along' and that's not going to happen."

Instead, no matter how well a child performed throughout the school year, if he fails the test, he's held back.

"They're telling us to test them, and if they pass, we're good. If they fail, we're bad," says Ross. "It's almost like they're setting them up for failure."

But with budget cuts forcing districts to slash summer school, as well as after-school programs, kids don't have much chance of recovering once they start to lose their footing.

Students aren't the only ones being measured by standardized tests; the teachers will be held accountable, too — an added pressure that Brown, for one, believes is a good thing. For instance, she says, if children from a certain second-grade class are consistently failing the third-grade test, then maybe the second-grade teacher shouldn't be teaching.

Some teachers have been working for 30 years and they still teach the way they did when they first started, she says. She'd like to see them replaced with teachers willing to adapt to what kids need.

And of course, no education reform is possible without help from parents. "There are parents that I just see at everything, and some that I don't meet until our first parent/teacher conference in October," Brown says.

Parents may be more willing to get involved in their child's education if they see that education could hit a roadblock at third grade.

In order to reach out to more parents, policy makers have to recognize that the social issues are closely tied to education, says Ross. Parents can't worry about homework if they're too busy worrying about survival.

"I don't understand why they do all these things for education like it's separate from life," she says. "Education is supposed to prepare you for life."