Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Goodbye summer school, hello ‘High School Plus'

School leaders push program as better alternative for students who have failed classes

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Charles A. Shoemaker/ The Gazette
Students sit in Aranda Brown's biology class during summer school at Gaithersburg High School.

Already dwindling the last several years, attendance at summer school for public high school students in Montgomery County fell nearly a quarter this summer, in large measure, school officials said, because of a year-old alternative program that lets students who have failed a class re-take it after school.

The program, called High School Plus, has many advantages over summer school, said Brenda Wilks, an assistant principal last year at Gaithersburg High School: It's a free program for the students, while summer school costs more than $300 per three-week session. Teachers say smaller classes are ideal for helping students who struggle with a subject, Wilks said. And absenteeism can be less of a problem with after-school help than in summer school.

More importantly, said Watkins Mill High School Principal Kevin Hobbs, the program offers a better educational environment.

"The experience is better for the kids, the expectations higher for the teachers. Students sometimes do night school and summer school as ‘I gotta do the time, I gotta do the punishment.' But with High School Plus, it's just like another class," Hobbs said. 

And while summer school and night school are run centrally from the school system — matching students and teachers from across the county — High School Plus can be tailored within each school.

Despite those advantages, participation in the program came up short of expectations, school officials said.

"It was new and many parents were, I don't want to say resistant, but sort of taking the view of ‘We're going to sit back and see how this works' — sort of skeptical of it," said Wilks, who is now a principal intern at Watkins Mill. "So even though we talked to the parents, we did a ConnectEd, we did a parent meeting and we presented that it's free and summer school costs and all this jazz, we were still really kind of surprised that we didn't have just huge numbers of kids coming." 

At Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, about 120 students used High School Plus in the fall and about 140 in the spring. That amounts to about half of students that could have used it, said Assistant Principal Khadija Barkley. There were also issues with attendance, she said, and "keeping kids on task" for the hour and 40 minutes past regular dismissal time.

When High School Plus debuted at all 25 county high schools last year, enrollment in summer school had already been in a steady decline since at least 2004, slipping 9 percent to 6,980 students in 2007. This summer, summer school enrollment fell to 5,382 students.

More than 8,500 students took part in some aspect of the program last school year, according to MCPS.

High School Plus has shown its merits and should be pushed as the first option for students who need to make up a class, said School Board member Judith Docca of Montgomery Village. But she said that administrators ought to assess the program for a few more years before phasing out summer school and night school.

"There's no reason not to do it. I think it solves a lot of problems, though it doesn't solve them for everyone," she said. "We need to see how High School Plus does next year, and if it looks like it's steady, then we should keep it going. We just have to wait and see how it goes this year."