Even though it is the start of a new school year, I would like us to look ahead towards its end. For most students that will mean a return to summer camp and leisurely days, but for some it will mean summer school.
Most people — especially students — would say that summer school is a punishment rather than an opportunity to acquire needed skills.
I’ve taught summer school since 1994 and I love it. Helping students to succeed is the highest reward my profession offers. Imagine the challenge and joy of assisting young people in a few short weeks. This time could change their whole trajectory, and it usually does. The question is will the change be for better or worse?
The way summer school works in Boston is that students have 20 days in which to make up what they missed in the previous 180 days. The classes are 2 or 2.5 times the length of a regular school class. So the 20 summer school days are like 40-50 regular school days. Might those 40-50 simulated days be enough to prepare students for the next year? Often it is.
But when those days are not sufficient, it’s usually because the students still don’t get the individualized attention they so desperately need. I don’t even know which of my summer school students have special education accommodations or who are English Language Learners.
Beyond paying teachers more (which is a very high priority) we need to reimagine how we help struggling students. If waiting until the school year is over seems too-little-too-late to you, it’s because it is. By Halloween I have a good idea which students will struggle all year. If the goal is to help students succeed, then we ought to intervene immediately.
When a student fails a marking term, the Boston Public Schools could offer Saturday schools in that subject. The BPS could offer weeklong “summer school” type classes during the vacation weeks in December, February and/or April. It’s rather cruel for us to let a student slowly drown for 10 months and then at the end throw them a life preserver. They are usually too tired from treading water to do much swimming.
I also find high-achieving students in summer school. Nearly always these students failed their first period subject due to tardiness. I’m sure there are many people who will scoff saying, “Kids should be on time no matter what.” Maybe they should, but the reality is that we send students from one end of the city to the other for a 7:20 a.m. start time. Such treks are difficult to do under the best of circumstances. Imagine doing that commute with the T shut down? Plus, as every pediatrician will tell you, teenagers are simply not designed to wake up at 5 a.m.
In addition to a more realistic schedule, we can help summer school students by giving them field trips. Too many students had their last field trip in elementary school. Why can’t summer school students have field trips? They probably need to see the value of their education more so than others, but we as a society intentionally ignore their needs all in the name of “that will learn them.” Such a medieval approach will yield predictable results: Students will resent the subjects they endure in summer school.
Thus I urge Boston, and all school districts, to reimagine how we help struggling students. Perhaps the BPS should hire a dedicated deputy superintendent for summer school so the process would be coherent across the district. Waiting until the dog days of summer is too late to help our struggling students. We ought to begin on day one.
Michael J. Maguire is beginning his 29th year teaching Latin at Boston Latin Academy and has taught the last three summers at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.