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Parents frustrated by rocky start to Buffalo summer school programs

Buffalo public school parents interested in free city summer school programs for their elementary children are once again finding themselves short on information and time.

Parents just began receiving information this week about summer school offerings and are expected to register their children by Thursday for programs that would start July 6. Moreover, many are just discovering that no transportation will be provided to most summer school sites.

Despite past district pronouncements about the importance of summer school as a way to combat summer learning loss, the district’s history of providing high quality summer school programs for young children has been repeatedly criticized as poorly organized, marketed and run in recent years. Parents repeatedly have complained that they received limited information about the summer offerings, that the information comes too late, and that engaging, hands-on learning and enrichment activities are so limited that many bored children dropped out of the program.

“Last year we were saying, ‘It’s got to get better next year,’ and now we’re here and it’s worse,” said Nekia Kemp, the parent of a district third-grader and member of the Afterschool Network of Western New York. “And the losers in all this are the children and the parents. It’s not a good thing, especially when we have partners willing to step up no matter what.”

The district’s struggle to expand summer learning opportunities beyond remedial education services for older students is well-documented.

In 2012, the district canceled elementary summer school and sent students home with worksheet packets instead.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Pamela Brown made an aggressive push for elementary summer school. But though more than 9,571 children were registered, fewer than half showed up the first week and even less stayed.

In 2014, the district said it couldn’t afford to pay for summer school. This resulted in a last-minute funding commitment of $1.2 million by Say Yes Buffalo to keep the programs going, on which the district spent $660,000. Roughly 6,400 students registered, but attrition resulted in attendance falling below 4,000 children by the fourth week of the program.

In February and March of this year, the district decided once again to drop summer school offerings for elementary students, citing the high cost and the high attrition rates. District officials said the decision to dump summer school was based on the fact that the program was so costly and the dropout rate so high. Instead, Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie said the district would redirect that money to its efforts to lower kindergarten class sizes.

This resulted in another funding infusion by Say Yes, which agreed in May to pay $500,000 in exchange for a seven-year, expense-sharing agreement with the district to provide summer learning opportunities for children, now rebranded as “summer camps.” That agreement is expected to be signed next week, said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.

Say Yes to Education came to Buffalo in 2012, offering fully paid college scholarship assistance to qualified students. The organization also has done ground-level work to expand academic, health and legal support services throughout district schools.

But the late effort to salvage district summer school programs this year has obvious consequences. First, the half-day, four-week summer camps aren’t being held in Buffalo schools any longer, but rather in community centers and churches. Families must make their own transportation arrangements because no district transportation is being provided. Community organizations that have the ability to provide some transportation services to children, however, will be reimbursed.

Schools have only begun sending out information on the programs to students this week, one week before the school year ends, and some schools haven’t yet sent out anything at all. What is being distributed provides limited information. The flier consists of a single-page, two-sided flier that tells parents to call their camp locations directly and reserve a spot by Thursday if they want to register. Detailed camp descriptions are not provided. Radio ads also began this week, and a robocall to parents is slated for next week. Information is also available on the school district and Say Yes websites.

Organizers, teachers and parents have complained that such a late publicity effort only hampers the ability to attract families, many of whom are forced to make summer child care arrangements long before now.

“I think it’s just poor planning, and decisions are just being made in crisis mode,” said parent Jessica Bauer Walker, a vice president with the District-Parent Coordinating Council. “It’s just been really patched together and last-minute.”

Rust said that though the timing is far from ideal, families at least have academic summer options, given the district’s initial unwillingness to provide any summer learning support at all to elementary children. He also pointed out that the district has finally committed to funding summer camp options in future years as a result of the seven-year agreement. The agreement, however, excludes any district transportation to or from the half-day programs, as well as the use of school buildings.

With the district’s agreement, Rust said, the current community-based model will be sustainable and result in much better advanced planning going forward. Summer camps will support students’ learning in math, English and reading, while also providing more arts and recreation, he said. Breakfast and lunch will continue to be served daily.

“We were put in a really difficult position this year,” he said. “I think what we were able to pull together in a short amount of time is really remarkable. This will get better going forward.”