Mandatory year-round schooling is expanding again this summer in the Buffalo Public Schools, and the early returns from sixth-grader Kelisha Moran are encouraging.
"It's great here," said Kelisha, a pupil at Highgate Heights Elementary School. "There are more activities than during regular school. Kids don't even want to go home."
Summer school -- or "extended learning opportunities," as the district calls it -- is a cornerstone of Superintendent James A. Williams' drive to improve pupil achievement.
Almost one-quarter of all fourth-graders are at the lowest level of performance in math, and others are failing to meet state proficiency standards in English.
By 2009, Williams expects all pupils in prekindergarten through eighth grade to attend school for 20 additional days in July and August and for city high schools also to have a longer school year. In addition, Williams envisions a longer instructional day during the conventional school year.
The plan appears to have broad support. But some parents, Board of Education members and union leaders are critical of how students are selected for summer school, the curriculum that is used and the sweeping nature of the program.
An estimated 9,000 Buffalo students have been directed to attend mandatory summer school this year at a cost of $3.3 million. Those who fail to take part or who do not improve their academic skills during the summer will not advance to the next grade in September.
Williams said he hopes to move pupils to grade level or above in reading and math and ultimately to boost graduation rates and lower special-education placements and drop-out rates.
"We have the shortest school day and school year of any of the countries we're competing with in the global market," Williams said. "What I'm asking parents is: Give us a chance to improve the quality of education for our children."
Mandatory summer school is taking hold in other urban school districts, but it remains optional in most suburban districts.
Williams is moving quickly. For example:
*Last year, pupils in prekindergarten through second grade at 24 schools were required to attend summer school if they were below grade level in reading.
*This year, that requirement was extended to prekindergarten through sixth grade at those 24 schools and to prekindergarten through second grade at an additional 16 schools.
*Pupils in grades seven and eight who fail to pass English, math and at least one other subject must also attend summer school.
*The district plans to use an $8 million state grant to add an hour to the school day and four summer weeks to the instructional year at the city's 16 lowest-performing schools.
"To be able to accomplish so much in so short a time is going to revolutionize education in our city much more quickly than anyone anticipated," said Will Keresztes, the principal at Highgate Heights, at 600 Highgate Ave. "It's an enormous opportunity for our students."
Others have a more cautious view.
School Board members Louis Petrucci and Catherine Nugent Panepinto question the use of an assessment test called the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, as the sole criterion to determine whether a child is required to attend summer school.
The test is designed as a tool to measure reading skills in elementary school but not to determine report card grades or make decisions on whether to move children from one grade to the next.
"Any time you put all your eggs in one basket, that can be difficult," Panepinto said.
Kim Laratonda said her son was assigned to summer school even though he got passing grades at Southside Elementary School and that he will not attend.
"It's just not fair to these kids," Laratonda said. "It's a misuse of DIBELS. I don't think he needs summer school."
School officials acknowledge that DIBELS is used exclusively to determine who must attend summer school but stress that teacher and principal recommendations also play key roles in deciding which children move to the next grade.
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore favors mandatory summer school for pupils working below grade level in the early elementary school grades. But he said the initiative can be pushed too far, especially if it becomes a requirement for students working at or above grade level.
"I don't think every student needs to be in a summer program," Rumore said. "It's not a one-size-fits-all situation."
Summer enrollment is projected this year at 8,975, and 6,747 pupils -- or 75 percent -- were in attendance Tuesday.
Despite some early problems with busing, the program has had a smooth first week, said Folasade Oladele, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
"Nothing is ever perfect, but we have a beautiful thing going on with our children," she said.
Although the extended learning program is considered a standard part of the school year, it combines instruction with more recreational elements.
At Highgate Heights, 2 1/2 hours of reading and an hour of math instruction are followed by three hours in the afternoon of chorus, art, physical education and creative writing.
Pupils and staff are allowed to wear shorts at many schools, and the atmosphere is more relaxed, especially in the afternoon.
"I've never been to summer school, so I'm excited," sixth-grader Gerard Zimmer said Tuesday. "I'm thinking it will be fun."