Thanks to enterprising principals, students in a few California communities will have no trouble answering the question: What did you do this summer?
Despite tight district budgets, some principals in Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified have on their own initiative figured out a way to provide programs this summer by reaching out to their local communities and private foundations for support.
Their efforts present a model of sorts to educators across the state seeking to cope with substantial cutbacks in state support for summer schools since the beginning of the Great Recession.
“We applaud these principals for making summer learning a priority because they recognize that it is essential to students’ success,” said Katie Brackenridge, senior director of Out-of-School Time (OST) initiatives for the Partnership for Children and Youth, a nonprofit that is spearheading a campaign, Summer Matters, to promote summer programs. “Children need high-quality learning year-round to thrive, and these school leaders are demonstrating the kind of innovative, creative and enterprising approaches to providing summer learning programs that others can and should emulate.”
Three principals, two in cities near Los Angeles and one in Oakland, interviewed by EdSource Today did not wait to get money from their districts to launch or enhance their summer programs. They all conceded that it wasn’t easy. But they believe that the lessons they have learned could be applied to many schools across the state.
These principals also emphasized that the programs would not have happened without the dedication of many volunteers. “Everyone wants to help a child,” said Marcia Sidney-Reed, who has been principal of 186th Street Elementary in Gardena for the past 10 years. “But you have to ask.”
If a business leader, corporation CEO, or foundation that you approach turns you down, she said, “you move on to the next one.” One tactic Sidney-Reed has used is to invite a corporate executive to be principal for an hour during the school year. “When they leave, they ask how they can help. Then we answer: summer school.”
“It’s hard work,” she admitted. “You walk your communities. You meet your people. But it’s worthwhile. The last day of summer school, some kids cried. They didn’t want to go home. Poverty is a real deal here. Some of them won’t get much to eat. Here they are getting breakfast, lunch, snack. It’s a safe haven.”
186th Street Elementary is part of Los Angeles Unified, which has drastically cut back its summer programs since the recession. The district spent $7.1 million on summer school this year, primarily from federal funds, compared to $42 million before the start of the recession. With its limited funds, the district for the past five years has had to draw up a list of priority schools that qualify for summer program support.
“We didn’t make the list,” Sidney-Reed said. As a result, for the past five years, she and staff member Jane Tokubo have had to write grant proposals for their summer programs. This summer, they raised $7,000 for a four-week afternoon camp for about 80 students. They also had a morning camp for 30 of those students whose parents worked and paid $100 total for the entire program.
The camp focused on healthy living, emphasizing fitness through water games and sports, and healthy eating through hands-on botany in the school’s garden.
It was the latter that impressed Liliana Alvarez, who turned 8 in July and was responsible for watering some of the plants. She was quick to point out what she had learned: “If you water a plant’s roots, you will help it grow,” she said, adding that it’s bad to water the plant’s leaves because it could cause a fungus.
Relying on dedicated volunteers
Tokubo got involved with 186th Street first as a parent and then for the past 16 years as the school coordinator for Healthy Start, a state-funded program stressing a comprehensive approach to student achievement. Without her help, Sidney-Reed said, there would be no summer program. On her own time, Tokubo writes grant proposals, seeks help from community businesses, and organizes the program. After-school staff take a big pay cut to work in the summer. This year two teachers volunteered to manage the summer chorus programs. Community groups, such as the Girl Scouts, do projects with the children.
“We’re not waiting for Superman,” Sidney-Reed said. “We saved ourselves.”
She also emphasized organizing free activities as a core part of a low-cost summer program, such as walking field trips to the neighborhood grocery store, where the children are given produce; to a local nursery, where they are given seedlings; or to a neighborhood restaurant, which can be convinced to give them a free lunch. They also do community service activities such as going to the local retirement home where they play board games with the seniors.
Besides being willing to ask, principals need to say “thank you,” Sidney-Reed emphasizes. Their first-year donors – Kaiser Permanente and a neighboring Toyota Technical Center – have contributed each year to the regular school and summer programs.
Tapping parents for help
Katherine Carter, principal for the past eight years of Manzanita SEED, an English/Spanish immersion elementary school in the Oakland Unified School District, turned to parents to help support a summer program at her school. Members of the all-volunteer School Site Council created a grant-writing committee to help fund school programs, including a half-day Spanish immersion summer school this year.
After district headquarters turned down a grant application, Carter’s parent committee discovered that the school might be eligible for an award from New Leaders, a program that trains principals that Carter had participated in. They repurposed the proposal and won the Roberts Award for School Innovation and a check for $25,000. Without the parents’ input, Carter doubts the proposal would have been successful.
“They packaged it up and put it in the right format,” Carter said. “As a principal, you are so busy that you often don’t have the time to prioritize writing a grant.”
She said that although many of the parents in her school may not have the background needed to pursue grants, it only takes three or four dedicated volunteers to get the job done. As it turned out, the district ended up contributing $40,000 to the program, more than the school expected. With some of the grant funds, the school hired two Spanish instructional aides, a soccer coach and a music teacher for the summer program. The rest of the money will be put into the school’s after-school program during the coming year.
The goal of the summer program was to provide a more intensive experience to help students in the English/Spanish immersion program who were struggling with Spanish. Instead of alternating English and Spanish classes, as occurs in the regular school year, students could speak only in Spanish. This approach aided fluency by discouraging students from translating back and forth, said Anne Perrone, a third grade teacher who taught incoming first graders for the summer.
“They don’t think in the language if they translate,” she said. “When we played math games this summer, they had to keep thinking in Spanish or they weren’t going to win.”
Next year, Carter said, the school may take a different approach to find funds for summer, based on their success raising money for the after-school program. The school was able to raise $35,000 to expand the program by encouraging upper- and middle-income parents to voluntarily pay fees based on a sliding scale. “People had to self-identify,” she said. “We didn’t want to do income verification.”
Providing a program without grants
Edward Trimis, principal of Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga near Los Angeles, also relied on parents to support a one-week “glee camp” that focused on singing for 17 elementary and middle school students. An accomplished musician, Trimis ran the program on his own and recruited high school students as volunteers. Parents who could afford it paid $100 for the half-day, week-long camp that also included performances throughout the summer at community events, such as the swearing in of a city councilmember and the Watermelon Festival at the Rose Bowl.
“We didn’t get a grant,” Trimis said. “We just did it.”
The summer program was an extension of his musical activities, which he initiated at the high school when he became principal two years ago. He immediately started a noontime Glee Club and later an early morning jazz choir and an a capella group. He teaches all three groups to help him keep in touch with the students and the school community.
The summer glee camp, Trimis feels, is a way for him to connect to the surrounding community and to possibly attract students interested in music to his high school. In Los Angeles Unified, students choose which high school to attend.
At least for Jessica Shone, 9, who has participated in the glee camp for two summers, Trimis’s approach seems to be working. Said Mary Lesczinski, Jessica’s mother, “Whenever we drive by Verdugo Hills, Jessica says, ‘that’s where I’m going to high school.'”
Although all three school principals would welcome more support from their districts — and none say that their success should let the state off the hook from adequately underwriting summer programs — they have demonstrated that it is possible to tap other resources to get one off the ground.
Sidney-Reed said that ideally she and her staff wouldn’t have to work so hard to create a summer program, but having to do so has had some unexpected and positive consequences. “It has definitely strengthened our ties to our community,” she said.
This report is one of a series of reports on expanded learning time supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation as part of of a multi-city reporting project by EdSource and EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.