Jon Marcus on how one city has persuaded its students to study over the holidays
SUMMER schools, a lamentable failure in New York, are flourishing in the city of St Louis.
Nearly half the students in the mid-western city are attending school this summer voluntarily, and nearly nine out of 10 show up every day. In New York, by comparison, 40 per cent of students are skipping their summer classes, even though many are required to attend.
The St Louis secret seems to be a novel collaboration with local community agencies, sports and cultural organisations that lets the 21,000 students in the programme split their days between class and recreation.
"We asked kids what kinds of things they would like to do, and we incorporated that into our regular programming," said Mabel Edmonds, the summer school director. "We know we're competing with the sports programmes and the day camps and all of the kind of fun things the kids want to do in the summer."
After classes end at about 2pm, the schools bus children to sports centres for organised games. They also provide apprenticeships and free trips to museums. Students at one school in a blighted neighbourhood spent the summer painting a mural on the wall of an abandoed building. Classes often read newspapers together instead of textbooks.
It seems to be working. The summer classes concentrate on reading, writing, and reasoning skills that are important in new state standardised tests, and scores have started rising.
"We're inching our way up," Ms Edmonds said. "We have a long way to go, but we feel we're making progress. We needed a comprehensive approach, and this seems to be working."
The health department is also taking the chance to immunise students, check their eyesight and test for lead in schools.
A Purdue University study found that students who attended school for longer than the traditional 180 days per year scored better on tests than their less conscientious counterparts, regardless of family income.
Classes tend to be smaller during the summer, and the curriculum is more flexible, leaving teachers free to try innovative methods of instruction and give students more individual attention.
St Louis plans to make its summer school mandatory next year for low performing students. Whether such programmes become more widespread is still uncertain, however, since the estimated national cost to add just one day to the existing school year is $1.5 billion (pound;1bn).