Columbia school district plans and funds summer program different from last year

Wednesday, May 5, 2010 | 10:05 a.m. CDT; updated 11:35 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 6, 2010

COLUMBIA — Unlike in previous years, Columbia Public Schools students can't get paid to go to class this summer.

The district formerly had a contract with a supplemental education service, Newton Learning (now Edison Learning), that managed the summer school program, wrote curricula, provided supplies and gave Visa gift cards to students who attended a minimum number of classes.

But now, summer school is fully in the district's hands, and it cannot legally supply monetary incentives to students for attending class. Superintendent Chris Belcher said he is glad to see that practice go.

"I just don’t have a comfort level with giving money away to kids as an incentive," he said.

So far, more than 6,000 students are enrolled in summer school, said Jan Mees, president of the Columbia School Board. Enrollment last year was nearly 7,800, although about 6,600 attended the first day of classes on June 15, 2009.

"There’s a number of reasons why the numbers are going to be dramatically lower," said Susan McClintic, president of Columbia Missouri National Education Association.

McClintic thinks some families may be less likely to enroll their children in summer school because they won't receive the attendance gift cards. She also attributes the lower numbers to a lack of promotion.

"We didn’t advertise (summer school) heavily because we didn’t know if we were going to have it," she said.

Parents were notified a couple of weeks ago that the summer program would continue after the School Board approved the move at an April 22 work session. Mees said parents were notified through the district's website, school newsletters and, if they'd signed up for it, by electronic notifications on their cell phones.

"We have to tell these parents what we're going to do, and we have to get these programs in place," Belcher said of the decision to move forward.

McClintic said it may have been difficult for families to wait for the district's decision to begin making summer plans, leading to a lower overall enrollment this year, though Belcher said enrollment surged after the district made the announcement.

State funding uncertain

The district deliberated about summer school until April because the proposed state funding for the program is not yet guaranteed. The current bill can be line-item vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon until July 1. Belcher said the worst-case scenario would result in an $800,000 deficit in the district budget for the program, though he doesn't think that will happen.

According to the proposed budget, the state would pay only for "core classes," which include language arts, math, science and social studies. The district would fund classes that fall outside these disciplines.

Mees also said the board had foreseen a potential budget loss for summer school even before becoming aware of the current state funding issue. Even so, she said she hopes the state will follow through with its plan.

"I'm counting on the core funding," she said. "I think we have to be extremely hopeful that we won't swallow the whole lock ourselves."

Mees said if the state funding doesn't come in, the board will use surplus from the budget this year to defray the expense of the summer program. This surplus can come from positions that weren't filled and supplies that weren't ordered.

McClintic said she is concerned that the district may have to use some of its reserve funds to support summer school if the state doesn't come through.

"If we start dipping into (the reserve) with our first bump, which is summer school, then I’m afraid of what road we’re headed down," she said.

What happens now

With the district behind the wheel, the summer school program will be more targeted to the specific needs of the students, as teachers are now able to write their own curricula. With more buildings being utilized for classes, some teachers may also be allowed to remain in their current rooms. Eighteen elementary schools will house classes this summer.

"Many teachers will get to use the same classroom they use during the year, which just makes logistics and comfort so much easier," he said.

Both Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools will house their own summer school courses, most of which consist of credit recovery programs. The high schools also offer select courses with topics such as personal finance and ACT preparation. Belcher said the personal finance course and a health course will be offered online this summer as a pilot effort in the district's plan to increase online course offerings in the fall semester.

It remains unclear how summer school programs will work for junior high and middle school students. Conversations about this segment of the program are ongoing.

The credit recovery programs for high school students are an effort to help more students graduate on time or graduate at all. The summer courses can help students who have failed classes during the regular school year and those who want to add more electives to their schedules in the fall and spring.

Both Belcher and McClintic said summer courses provide an invaluable service to disadvantaged students . The free and reduced lunch program continues in the summer, and 36 percent of elementary school students in the district live in poverty-level households.

Mees said the board was unanimous in its support for summer school's continuation despite the deficit risk.

"The academic piece, what it is for our students, kind of overrode the risk were going to take," she said.

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