For high achieving students, summer school is the only way to stack their high school transcripts for their college applications to shine above the rest.
At Peninsula High School, near the top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, more than a thousand students have signed up for classes this summer, most of them to get ahead, officials said.
“They want to fill their transcripts with what looks at very appealing to colleges and universities,” program director Pat Corwin said. "They can’t do that during the normal school year."
The average six-period high school day doesn’t stretch far enough to meet graduation requirements and college entry requirements – especially for those who are shooting for a big name school, Corwin said.
A generation ago Palos Verdes Unified used to run its summer school. Corwin said the school district can’t afford it anymore – so now students have to pay for it.
California state law forbids public schools to charge for classes. To get around that, this and other public school districts - including Manhattan Beach, Arcadia, and San Marino - have set up private foundations to run their summer schools. At Palos Verdes, the foundation charges students $585 per summer school class.
“Particularly in a community like Palos Verdes, parents place a very high value on education,” Corwin said.
“If that moves you ahead a year and enabled you to go into AP, that’s what parents there will do,” Cal State LA education researcher Rebecca Joseph said. “In certain parts of LAUSD, you have parents who can afford it. In the majority of districts, they can’t. It needs to be free.”
At Palos Verdes and other districts that serve wealthy communities, some summer school students study complex concepts called ‘moles’ in honors chemistry or income distribution in economics class. Others take electives during the summer so that they can take as many as six Advanced Placement classes during the year.
“Summer school is a part of the arms race to get into college,” said Brendan Karg, the summer school ceramics teacher in Palos Verdes.
Juliana An just finished 9th grade and she’s already feeling the pressure of arranging her classes just right for the rest of her high school career. She’s taking Karg’s ceramics class this summer.
"My mom wanted me to do chemistry, but I knew it was going to be way too hard and I didn’t have time during the year to do art classes,” she said, as she finished adding a wood grain pattern on a clay jar.
Karg said because summer classes are more concentrated, teens can better explore their inner artist. But he questions whether summer school is good for them at all.
“For a lot of these kids, they’d probably be better served to just have a summer away from this in general - get out there into the world and do something different, learn in a different way, not back on campus,” he said.
For other students, the ones who’ve failed academic classes required for graduation, summer school isn’t a choice.
Even those classes were hard to get for years at the Los Angeles Unified school district, which gutted its summer school program in 2009. A district official said at one point L.A. Unified was spending $43 million on summer school for all grades. That whittled down to $1 million last year. After two years of funding only 6,000 seats for high school students, the program is back up this summer, offering 36,000 slots in make-up classes.
“We’re helping students capture those credits that they need, making more students eligible to graduate," said Javier Sandoval, an administrator with L.A. Unified’s Beyond the Bell branch. "And of course we know that students that graduate from high school have a greater earning capacity than students that don’t.”
Banning High School teacher Jeff Evans believes the decimation of summer school in this school district the last few years caused a lot of students to fall further behind.
“For a lot of them, it’s a second chance - but then it’s a wake up call, too,” he said. “Obviously, if they’ve had struggles in the past then they can identify what those struggles are and summer school gives them the opportunity to alter their character, change the game.”
Expectations are rising fast for these and all other L.A. Unified students. Starting in 2016, the school district will only grant high school diplomas to students who’ve completed the University of California college entry course requirements with at least a ‘C’.
Joseph, the Cal State LA education researcher, said only one fourth of current L.A. Unified sophomores are on track to meet that requirement.
“That means summer school is going to be big time” in the next few years, she said.