San Jose Mercury News: Summer school: Oases in East San Jose, San Ramon, Oakland
SAN JOSE -- Public schools are suddenly flush with cash from the state, but one victim claimed by the Great Recession is only starting to bounce back: summer school.
A few Bay Area school districts are resurrecting summer classes that offer a leg up in academics or simply offer fun, mind-expanding lessons -- critical in stopping the summer slide, when kids can lose as much as one or two months of learning.
"Education is a real high priority with our families," said Kirby Hoy, director of instruction at San Ramon Valley Unified, one of the few districts that never abandoned enrichment summer classes. Over the summer, he said, "They want kids to continue to use their brains."
In San Ramon Valley, classes range from coding and consumer math to cooking and chess. At Oakland Unified, some students can attend a variety of camps, from engineering to an overnight program of both academics and community building.
And, in East San Jose, high school students are clamoring to spend their summer break surrounded by beakers, Bunsen burners and periodic tables.
"I don't have anything to do at home," said Diana Sandoval, a 13-year-old rising freshman in a biology-prep class at James Lick High. She hopes to become a pediatrician. "It's better to be at school."
By law, all school districts offer summer classes for special education students, and many offer credit-recovery classes. Many also harness nonprofit groups to boost lower-achieving students. Far fewer aim at the vast group of students in the middle.
So after summer enrichment classes virtually vanished with forced budget cuts in 2007, families that could afford it sent their kids to camps in rocketry, robotics or rock hunting. But such options are out of reach for most working-class families.
East Side Union, the largest high school district in Northern California, is trying to change that, offering courses nearly five hours a day for six weeks at most of its 11 biggest campuses.
At Yerba Buena High, several hundred students are enrolled in classes ranging from English as a Second Language to boot camps for advanced-placement courses. Such offerings are critical for a district like East Side, where at least half of its 28,600 students live in poverty and can't afford the array of summer research, travel and adventure available to wealthier peers.
To offer enrichment courses this summer, East Side cobbled together funding from the state, local sources and nonprofits like the Silicon Valley Education Foundation and Los Altos-based ALearn.
So why aren't more Bay Area districts doing the same? The dearth of summer choices in most schools isn't entirely the fault of school districts. Even with California's tax-revenue windfall, school funding still hasn't recovered to 2007 levels. And recently reinforced state law prohibits course fees, which used to fund summer school. Some local school districts still skirt that law by inviting outside providers to run classes on campus, or by not offering credit for courses, although advocates on the prowl for legal violations look askance at such practices.
San Ramon Valley Unified requests donations to cover enrichment classes, up to $120 for each two-week session of a two-hour class. Only about half of the parents whose students attend oblige, Hoy said.
Here and there, free programs target students in poverty. San Jose Unified placed 170 students in pilot programs such as a science-culinary class at Lowell Elementary and an argumentative writing course at Hoover Middle. In Gilroy Unified, a six-week summer camp is teaching 630 students science, engineering and health. Boston-based nonprofit Bell offers 280 students a five-week program at Bridges Academy and Los Arboles Middle School in San Jose.
Summer "bridge" programs to ready ninth-graders for high school are offered not only in East Side, but also in the Campbell, Sequoia and San Mateo high school districts.
But high-quality, affordable enrichment and support programs fall far short of the demand and need for them -- which may be why slots for those classes were snapped up in East Side.
"We had an overwhelming number of students who wanted to participate," James Lick Assistant Principal David Porter said.
Some wanted to earn credits toward graduation, or to ensure their success in a tough course next year -- part of the idea behind the Elevate Chemistry courses prepping students for the full-year class.
Chemistry teacher Sheila Lacanaria appreciates the chance to target lessons. Her Elevate Chemistry course has smaller class sizes, fewer distractions and a teacher's aide. In her class and in biology classes, students this summer discovered that a dollar bill coated in ethanol and water is hard to burn, chemicals sometimes explode -- mostly to students' delight -- and strawberries' DNA looks weird.
Thanks to a summer prep program, a majority of James Lick sophomores such as Ricardo Cortes enroll in chemistry, Porter said.
Cortes, 14, starts school at 7:45 a.m. just to puzzle over molecular mass. "It's not hard for me," said Ricardo, who hopes to become a chemical engineer. "It's basically just numbers."