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Reflections on Summer School

 “Summertime and the living is easy…”   from the folk opera Porky & Bess, George & Ira Gershwin, 1937

Summertime was anything but easy for those students who habitually spent part of their vacation back in school. Now that school has been dismissed for summer vacation, I recall spending many summers, in the stifling heat, making-up for what I hadn’t done during the year. School started promptly at 8:00 AM and was dismissed around noon.  Students who attended summer school did so for one of two reasons; either they had failed a subject or they wanted to get ahead by taking a course their schedule was unable to accommodate during the regular year. Summer school was a no frills experience. The teacher talked; students listened and there were regular quizzes and tests. No one cared about self-esteem, motivation or individual learning styles. It was “do or die.”


In the shadow of standardized testing, international performance deficits and the achievement gap, school systems are scrambling to find ways of packing more content into an already full curriculum. Summer school has become both a way engage students in remedial and supplemental programs. Today’s summer school is ‘a far cry’ from the days when those two words were synonymous with failure. There are “Jump Start” programs to prepare kids for kindergarten. Rather than just serving academic failures – rarely is anyone allowed to fail anymore, anyway –  summer school is open to and encouraged for all students. Typically it resembles summer camp rather than boot camp. Breakfast and lunch are provided.  Following morning classes, the afternoon is dedicated to enrichment activities and field trips. Some programs include after school supervision.  This type of program is known as the “extended year. “

Between my freshman and freshman years (not a typo), I changed schools. After an abysmal first year in public school, I was to try my luck at a private institution.  A condition of my acceptance was that I take an additional history course. So every morning, my parents drove me across town to the only high school that offered summer classes.  Interestingly,  I remember the music that was popular at the time, the thickness of the text book , the blue cover and the attractive girl who sat behind me. I can still “hear” the peculiar way the teacher pronounced Modern History;  “Welcome to Morn History,” he intoned, as though the letter d was silent. I sort of liked history, so the experience wasn’t all together bad. There was a lot of reading and Friday was test day.  The school was not air conditoned. By noon, all of us looked like flowers that needed a good watering. So it went for six weeks. I remember studying hardb for the final. When it ended, the teacher handed me my exam and said, “Good Job!” That was as personal it got in those days.  Across the top of the page was the letter grade, “B.” The impact of his comment has stayed with me for more than fifty years. I had earned that grade.

When they do not participate in teaching/learning activities over the summer, all children experience some learning loss. This varies depending on grade level, subject matter and socio-economic level. The losses occur in both content and process. According to various research findings, the loss in math is approximately 2.6 months of grade level equivalency. Low income students generally lose about 2 months of reading equivalency, which tends to increase the achievement gap. Standardized test scores are usually lower at the beginning of the school year, leading many systems to request that tests be scheduled later in the year.

The present 9-month school calendar was introduced when 85% of American students were involved in agriculture.  I believe the time has come to reexamine the school year in light of what we know about learning, retention and the prodigious amount of material which has to be covered.  I fully realize there are impediments to lengthening the school year. Parents object to not having summer vacations with their kids. There is no way that taxpayers can support teacher salaries for an additional 2-3 months.  More than students, teachers need a respite from the crushing pressure of performance based evaluation.  What is needed is a little creative thinking.  Toward that end, I think a rotating trimester may hold a great deal of promise for rewriting the school year. That might be a topic for another discussion.  Meanwhile, my best wishes for a restful and enjoyable summer.

Charlie Margolis is a veteran art educator, who taught in Newington’s middle and high schools forcharlie_1 35 years. During his career, he received multiple awards for teaching, community service and leadership; among them were the Celebration of Excellence, Newington Chamber of Commerce Public Service Award and the William P. Ward Award for Educational Development. Presently, Charlie is Chair of the South Windsor Human Relations Commission. He was Poet Laureate of South Windsor and the author of the poetry book, “Class Dismissed: A Teacher Says Goodbye“, published by the Connecticut Education Association. Under Mr. Margolis’ leadership, South Windsor became the first community to publish a book of poetry, called “Voices“, entirely written by residents and former residents of the town.  Charlie is Executive Director of Interview Image Associates, LLC. The firm specializes in preparing political candidates, pageant contestants, job aspirants and college applicants for interviews, speeches and presentations. 


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