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Canceling summer school draws ire Buffalo parents criticize use of worksheets instead

Elementary school students in Buffalo did not have the chance to practice their reading and math in summer school this year.

District officials canceled summer school for the city's youngest students, pointing to funding cuts and an internal study that concluded the program was not as effective as they'd hoped.

Instead of having the option to attend summer school, all 17,000 students in kindergarten through sixth grade were sent home in June with 70-page packets of worksheets they're expected to complete over summer vacation and return in September.

The packets have met with widespread criticism from parents, for a variety of reasons. Many say the district never explained why the packets were sent home. Others point out that in a district where students speak more than 70 languages, the packets were translated into only one: Spanish. Some say the worksheets are too easy.

Cordia Christopher Popp's son will be starting first grade in September.

"When I opened the packet, I thought, ‘This is a joke.' It is way too easy for my son," she said. "It takes a lot of time and effort to get my son to sit down and do this, and it's a little frustrating when it's baby work. For example, one sheet had pictures of various body parts, and the directions said to select the correct word for the picture. Please."

Some parents who have more than one child in elementary school complained that some of the assignments were identical for children in different grades. Children all the way from kindergarten through sixth grade, for instance, were asked to draw a picture of the moon every night for a month. All the children then had to answer questions about what they observed; the questions for older students, though, were different from those in the lower grades.

The schools are encouraging students to return the packets by the second week of school. Wilson said the district plans to offer an incentive program for students who return their completed packets, but officials have not yet determined what the incentives will be.

It's also not clear who will correct the packets. Wilson said it would be too much of a burden on the classroom teachers, so central office staff most likely will correct them. If students or their parents ask to get their corrected packets back, they can, she said, but there's no plan to return them as a standard practice.

Wilson said data from the students' answers will be gathered and analyzed, then forwarded to classroom teachers so they better understand students' strengths and weaknesses.

Many parents question whether the packets will improve student achievement.

"It makes no rational sense. If you are saying certified teachers who were teaching summer school got negligible results from a child coming to summer school, what are you saying is going to happen differently by giving an uncertified parent a packet of materials?" said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

District officials say they plan to reinstate summer school next year after revamping the curriculum.

"I'm not going to sit here and try to convince you that having packets is a better alternative than having an extended learning opportunity," said Frances Wilson, the district's chief academic officer. "Next year, the plan is certainly to have summer school."

So why did she and other officials decide to cancel summer school this year?

Their primary justification is an analysis of the 2011 summer school program that found students who attended summer school often ended up at the same point academically as students who did not.

That analysis – a 12-slide PowerPoint presentation created within the district – contradicts two extensive University at Buffalo evaluations, each involving a team of researchers.

The data in the PowerPoint presentation consists of four bar graphs and one table containing percentages of students at each of three levels – at grade level, needing intervention, and needing intensive intervention – on a basic literacy assessment at the end of the school year before summer school and then at the beginning of the following school year.

The PowerPoint presentation concluded that "a summary view does not show much difference" between the academic progress of students who attended the summer program and those who did not.

But the UB evaluations – of the 2007 and 2008-09 programs – found that Buffalo's summer school helped combat the well-documented summer learning loss that hits students in poverty especially hard. Taxpayers spent $27,401 for the first evaluation and $121,018 for the second evaluation, covering two summers.

"Students who participate in [the Extended Learning Opportunities Program] show gains in their reading scores from the end of the school year to the beginning of the next school year," one of the reports summarized.

A team of seven UB researchers four years ago issued the first report, a 24-page evaluation of the district's Extended Learning Opportunities Program in 2007. Like the evaluations that followed it, the report was based on data from what's known as DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, testing. DIBELS assessments are routinely given to students three times a year as an in-house measure of students' progress.

The 2008 study looked at DIBELS scores from May and August and found that at every grade level from kindergarten through sixth grade, at least 80 percent of students maintained their oral reading fluency level or improved it after attending summer school.

For students in poverty – like the majority of Buffalo's summer school students – maintaining the same level of proficiency over the summer is considered better than what would happen in the absence of a summer program.

"Research finds that low-income kids are losing two to three months of reading skills over the summer," said Gary Huggins, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association.

By the time students reach ninth grade, the summer learning loss accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap, a recent Johns Hopkins University study found.

In the 2007 UB study, results were strongest among sixth-graders: A third were better able to read out loud after attending summer school.

Two years later, a team of three UB researchers issued a 52-page evaluation of the summer school program, based on data from summer 2009, two years after the initial UB evaluation. Reading scores from June and September were used.

Among the conclusions from that study:

* Reading scores increased an average of 3.6 percentage points for students who attended summer school.

* Students who attended full-day summer school (which was offered for the lowest-performing schools) had an average increase of 5.2 points, compared with those attending half-days, who had an average increase of 3.1 points.

* African-American students experienced the greatest gains.

* A larger percentage of students who attended summer school increased their scores on state English and math tests, compared with students who did not attend summer school. Summer school students outperformed other students on the English test, "often by more than 10 percentage points."

None of those findings, though, were factored into the decision to cancel summer school this year, according to the district's chief academic officer. Wilson said she had not seen the UB evaluations until after The Buffalo News requested copies of them last week.

When The News requested copies of the UB evaluations, a district spokeswoman said Buffalo Public Schools officials were unable to locate them. University officials sent copies of the evaluations to the district, which then released them to The News.

After she reviewed the UB evaluations, Wilson stood by the decision to cancel summer school.

"In looking at the reports, none of them makes an overt argument for or against summer school," she said in an email. "The UB reports measure student levels at the beginning and end of the summer, but they do not follow the students into the following school year to look for correlations in increased learning as a result of summer school attendance."

The district this year did continue to offer summer school to students in grades seven to 12.

Canceling summer school for elementary students saved the district a few million dollars.

It remains to be seen what the long-term cost to students will be.

City Hall sources said that under former interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon, plans for summer school fell behind schedule over the winter.

Dixon said the district's internal analysis of the program indicated it was not worth continuing for another year in its existing format but there was not enough time to revamp it.

"We looked at the academic data and did not see enough impact of the program as it was designed," she said.

The other issue was money.

For the past two years, the district paid for summer school using federal stimulus funds, a one-shot revenue source that dried up this year.

In previous years, the district used anti-poverty Title I funds to pay for the summer school offerings.

The money that had been spent on summer school would be better spent putting additional teacher assistants in kindergarten classes throughout the district during the regular school year, Dixon said.

Under the current superintendent, Pamela C. Brown, those plans have been modified to add two teaching assistants to every elementary building, but what specific grade they will be assigned to will be left up to building principals, officials said.

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