Summer school program gives incoming freshmen a jump start

Summer school
Christopher Oquist, Courtney Thomas, Brianna Skildum and Juan Toledo, left to right, listen as health teacher Danielle Formanek explains as assignment about setting goals Thursday, June 21, 2012 during summer school at South High School. The four students just completed 8th grade and can receive high school credits this summer before starting 9th grade.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Mention "summer school", and you'll likely get a groan out of most Minnesota students.

That's because summer school is often seen as a punishment for falling behind academically during the regular school year.

The Minneapolis School District is working to take some of the sting and stigma out of summer school for soon-to-be freshmen, by giving them high school credit for their work.

In Eric Spark's summer geography class, students who will be high school freshmen in the fall are using iPads to add pictures and descriptions to maps.

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Antwan Holmes, 14, of Minneapolis is taking this course to get a head start on his freshman year.

"I'm just here to get credits and get ready for high school."

If he gets a passing grade in geography, Holmes will earn high school credit. He also earns credit for taking classes that help him catch up where he has fallen behind in school. For Holmes that's in science.

Summer school
Antwan Holmes, right, works on a geography assignment using an iPad Thursday, June 21, 2012 during summer school at South High School in Minneapolis. Holmes just finished 8th grade and will earn high school credit this summer before starting 9th grade in the fall.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"Because I have kind of a learning disability, so I need help," Holmes said. "I'm trying to get stronger [in science] so I'll be ready for high school."

In all, Holmes can earn up to four elective credits this summer in the Minneapolis district's Fast Track Scholar program.

That's a big change from the summer school of old, where students would come in just to do make up classes, Sparks said.

"I haven't taught summer school in 15 years. It's changed a lot since I did it last time," Sparks said. "It's very well organized... giving them credits like this, getting them involved. Totally different. It's a great way to do summer school."

This six-week program at South High School in Minneapolis and now in its second summer, offers a total of 11 classes.

Three classes are remedial: science, algebra, and reading and writing. But the other classes help students work ahead. That includes classes in health science, physics, physical education and art.

Nearly 80 percent of the students enrolled in the summer program need some sort of remedial work. But it is open to any student in the district who is heading into ninth grade and wants to earn high school credits.

Summer school
Martesia Craig, left, shows geography teacher Eric Sparks, right, photographs from Greece that she saved to her iPad Thursday, June 21, 2012 during summer school at South High School in Minneapolis. Craig just finished 8th grade and will earn high school credit before starting 9th grade in the fall.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Program coordinator Elizabeth Bortke said that mixing of students changes the perception that summer school is a punishment of sorts.

"Everybody is part of a larger program where all of your peers are invited and no matter where you are we are going to put you in classes that accelerate you," Bortke said.

Bortke hopes students who earn a few credits before high school will be more on track to graduate.

District data shows as many as one in five students who start out as freshmen drop out before they reach graduation.

Bortke said besides the credits they earn, the program also gives students an idea of what to expect in high school before they walk through the door as freshmen.

"You'll know the homework load that's expected outside of class work, as well," Bortke said.

The voluntary program has signed up 600 students this summer. That's triple the number who showed up for the old summer school two years ago, but still represents about half of the students who could benefit from the program.

Minneapolis School District officials say they want to add a similar program for students moving from ninth to 10th grade next summer, if they can find the funding. The program costs more than $250,000.

One University of Minnesota professor expects more schools will adopt this model in the future.

Karen Seashore, a professor at the university's College of Education and Human Development, said changing student perception of summer school is critical.

"This kind of subtle shift is a way of making a statement and putting a footprint on the idea that summer school is actually for enrichment as well as remediation," Seashore said.