HISD Looks to Trim Summer School Costs

An initial -- and not yet approved -- plan presented to Houston ISD board members today calls for cutting summer school expenditures from more than $26 million to either $11 million or $15 million for 2011.

At the same time, principals are being told that the money they have been holding to set aside in case they didn't get any funds for summer school, can be released.

"We will tell the principals they can use those set-aside dollars," Chief Academic Officer Chuck Morris said.

The district has come up with $14 million in Title I Stimulus money that can be used to fund the summer school program. (Of course, this is the last year for that money so they'll have to come up with something else for 2012, Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett said).

The Houston district, like all others in Texas, anticipates severe cuts in funding thanks to an expected massive budget shortfall for the state. It expects its cuts from money passed on to it by the state to decline by about $10 million, Morris said.

Morris and Superintendent Terry Grier also said they don't think HISD's summer school program is as effective as it could be. In their proposal, they talked of setting up a different system that would require less "seat time" for elementary students, as Morris put it. Elementary and middle school kids would attend classes from 8 a.m. to noon (instead of 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.) in a 19-day session starting June 13 and ending July 8. There would be two teacher training days before that.

In addition, not every elementary school would offer summer classes; in a "cluster" program, students from schools with only a few kids in need of summer school in order to be promoted, might instead be redirected to a nearby school.

High schools would still operate their own summer school programs and students there would attend from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Also at issue: whether to continue allowing students to attend summer school who are there for "reinforcement" rather than promotion. These are students whose teachers think they would benefit by an extra summer stint and students whose parents want them in extra classes because for instance, they believe in year-round school. Whether those other students are allowed to enroll would account for the difference in cost between the $11 million and $15 million version.

This past summer, of the 46,059 students who went to summer school in PK-8th grade, 22,160 or 48.1 percent were there to try to get promoted to the next grade, 23,211 or 50.4 percent were there for reinforcement and 688 or 1.5 percent were there as part of extended services for the most severely handicapped special ed students. There were a total of 8,769 high school students enrolled (with no further breakdown presented as to why).

The proposal also brought up the possibilty of schools offering tuition courses and tuition camps that would be paid for by parents.

Assessments of the kindergarten to eighth grade summer school students before and after showed that almost 70 percent showed increases in performance in all their subjects while the average percentage point change was 15 percentage points -- which Grier said was not enough.

Trustees threw a further variable into the mix when they asked about standards and pay for summer school teachers who are paid a set stipend for their duties. Grier said right now the only automatic disqualifications are if a teacher has been placed on a growth plan or has declining value-added scores. After that, the spots are determined in an interview process.

If the trustees decide they'd rather pay teachers at their regular salary level in summer school -- to help attract some of the best teachers to the neediest kids -- the the proposal the board saw would have to be recalibrated and the number of students in summer school would have to be limited, Morris said. "My recommendation is we pay them more money and take fewer students," Morris said. "Every principal would like to pay teachers more."

Trustee Michael Lunceford argued for the importance of summer school programs. "It's a lot cheaper to do it that way than to do an Apollo School because you didn't teach them in summer school." The Apollo School reference was to the special program championed by Grier operating at nine schools this year in an effort to turn around low-performing schools and the students attending them. Lunceford was referencing the relatively higher per pupil costs of Apollo 20.

There was no response to Lunceford's comment.

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