Columbia school officials seek outside help for summer classes

Thursday, December 18, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

When the Independence School District turned to a private company to operate its summer school, enrollment in summer classes for elementary and middle school students doubled in the first year.

The Raytown School District near Kansas City saw summer school enrollments go up for three consecutive years under the management of the same firm, Newton Learning.

Columbia Public School District is looking to join the growing list of districts in Missouri using Newton Learning. Officials here project the company would increase the district’s summer enrollment from about 2,000 to 3,250 — a 62 percent jump.

Decision expected

Assistant Superintendent Skip Deming hopes to decide as early as next week whether to contract for one year with Newton Learning to provide remedial education for students in elementary and middle school. The district is also considering whether to use Newton this summer for high school classes, English as a Second Language and a minority intern program.

Columbia would continue the district’s other summer programs such as elementary and middle school enrichment and the extended school year for special education students.

Many benefits

Since Newton takes care of all the planning for its summer school programs, Deming said, district employees could focus on the regular school year. Another part of Newton’s appeal is the fact that it orders materials and arranges transportation for students.

Money also plays into the picture for students and the district.

One novel part of the Newton program is that it uses incentives to motivate students for achievement, attitude and attendance.

Rick Atha, superintendent in the Raytown district, said students in his district have received $100 gift certificates for perfect attendance, with $50 and $25 certificates for missing only a few days.

On the district side, Deputy Superintendent Jacque Cowherd has projected that a significant increase in funding could be generated from contracting with the firm. This increase hinges on a state formula that controls educational funding.

Money matters

Missouri schools receive their funding through a state formula with several key factors — one of which is the number of eligible pupils.

Districts do not often have a chance to control the number of pupils taken into account in this formula. But with increased summer school enrollment, Cowherd said, the Columbia district would be increasing the number of students and would therefore be eligible for more money from the formula. In addition, the state pays double the allotted amount of money per student during the summer.

With the increases in enrollment projected by Newton and the rise in eligible pupils, the Columbia district could gain between $2 million and $3.3 million more than they would by running summer school internally. This figure includes the $600-per-student fee Newton will charge the district.

This money, Cowherd said, could be used toward budget shortfalls in the coming year. However, money is not the main issue.

“If the dollars work, that’s a plus,” Cowherd said. “But if we can get the kids improved and help them in their academic side of it, that’s what we’re really focused on.”

A different approach

A final aspect of Newton that is unlike other summer school programs is the curriculum. Through Newton, students go to school for fewer days, but are there for longer hours broken up into morning and afternoon sessions. Atha said one of the positives of the program is that the morning sessions, although based in reading, math, science and language arts, are not the typical classroom experience.

“It’s not in-the-lecture, student-take-notes sense. It’s more hands-on and user-friendly,” Atha said.

Under the Newton approach, the afternoon curriculum is electives. Students get to rank their choices among many different classes. At Raytown, Atha said, students chose to build and shoot rockets, build and ride go-carts, play educational video games and swim during this time. Other examples from the Newton Web site include movement and dance and media broadcasting.

Atha said one of the things Newton does well is market the program to students.

“When the information goes home to the parents, the students often sign up,” he said.

An initial concern for the Columbia district was finding enough teachers for the projected increase in enrollment. However, that was not an issue for Raytown, Atha said. His district had almost 4,000 students in the program last year — nearly half of the total enrollment — but has not had to look outside its district for summer faculty members.

Newton Learning, based out of San Angelo, Texas, has been running summer school programs since 2001. Currently the company is working with more than 400 schools in 70 districts in Missouri. Missourian reporter Courtney Miget contributed to this story.

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