Education

Leg up or catch up? Wealthier students use summer school to get a step ahead

Summer school is becoming, for those who can afford it, the time when a high school students stack their transcript with classes for college admission.
Summer school is becoming, for those who can afford it, the time when a high school students stack their transcript with classes for college admission.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Summer school is not longer only for students who want to erase an “F” grade. It’s increasingly becoming, for those who can afford it, the time when a high school students stack their transcript with classes for college admission.

“In the last forty years — the most affluent parents, the gap between how much they spend on children and how much the poorest parents spend on children has grown three-fold… it goes to tutoring, and after school programs, and summer programs,” said UCLA education researcher John Rogers.

Case in point, Rogers said, is the kind of summer classes that public students in affluent Southern California communities like San Marino and Arcadia can take. Both school districts offer high school summer classes for a fee that tops out at about $700. The classes are held on that district's campuses and the tuition is collected by an independent foundation.

This is the result of an academic arms race in the state, Rogers said, in which the public university system “has increasingly raised the demands for admission so students across the broad system are looking to see how they can position themselves competitively for that system.”

At San Marino Unified, some of the most popular summer school classes are health and world history.

“To take some of these requirements out of the way during the summer frees up their schedule to take more advanced classes,” such as Advanced Placement Calculus, said San Marino Superintendent Alex Cherniss.

At Burbank Unified, students can only take traditional summer school classes to make up an “F” grade. Meanwhile, other school districts such as L.A. Unified set aside a small portion of their classes for students wanting to get ahead.

“The public systems need to really replicate what families are buying for their kids that are getting much better results,” said Jennifer Peck, executive director of the Partnership for Children and Youth.

Taking stock of the effects of the summer school achievement gap, educators in less affluent areas where private fundraising for public schools is a challenge, are getting creative and tapping into growing education funding.

“We are seeing increased investment in summer programs that are not just remedial in nature,” Peck said.

One such effort is taking place in Long Beach.

About 8,000 students there are taking summer school — the vast majority are there to make up low grades in academic classes. Still, the school district has close to 400 students "taking one of six different courses at Long Beach city where they’re taking a college class that will count not only for college but will count for dual credit for us here in Long Beach Unified,” said Superintendent Chris Steinhauser.

The program is a partnership with Long Beach City College. The college pays the students’ tuition; the school district pays for books.

The next step for school district summer school, Peck said, is to make it feel less punitive and infuse it with the joy of learning and interactions that you see in summer camps.

That may be a bigger challenge.