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Students feel deep cuts to L.A. Unified summer school program

Students file into John H. Francis Polytechnic High School for the first day of summer school.
Students file into John H. Francis Polytechnic High School for the first day of summer school.
Jed Kim

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SUMMER LEARNING: Education experts say idle summers can put kids behind when they go back to school in the fall. KPCC spoke to teachers, parents and kids across Southern California about what they're learning this summer — or not.

Enrique Ramirez doesn't pull any punches about why he needs to retake English in summer school. 

"I failed it," Ramirez said. "I guess I was lazy or something."

To get in, however, he'd have to be lucky. Ramirez, who'll be a high school junior next year, joined a crowd of students early on the first day of summer school, vying for one of the few open seats at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School

Years of budget cuts have whittled away seats for the summer program. Only about 5,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will be able to make up for failed credits this summer — and that's not nearly enough.

On the first day of summer classes at Polytechnic, one of 16 L.A. Unified schools offering summer courses, a line of about 150 waiting list students ran from the front of the school's auditorium all the way out onto the sidewalk. 

“These kids that are here – they were here since 7 trying to get in,” said Javier Sandoval, an administrator for Beyond the Bell, which runs summer school for the district.

In 2008, when the budget stood at more than $51 million, the district was able to serve nearly 200,000 students in summer school. Now, for the second year in a row, the district cut its summer school budget to $1 million, shuffling the rest of the money into programs for the academic year to meet demands there.

As a result, the number of seats and types of available classes have both been cut. School officials said they've had to prioritize. High school students can only take the courses for credit recovery, and they can only make up one class.

"There’ll be limited opportunities for students, but the students who go first are those who are ready for graduation and missing a course,” said L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy.

Last year's seniors got first dibs on open seats, followed by freshmen who'd failed a year of algebra. Juniors needing to make up credits edged out sophomores, who were lowest in priority. 

Ramirez, who numbered among those at the bottom of the list, said he'd try again at another school if he didn't make the cut. However, his chances of getting in at another location weren't good, either.

Some charter schools have stepped into the role that L.A. Unified cannot fill. The Options For Youth public charter schools in Southern California has enrolled nearly 17,000 students in its independent study summer programs. Many of those students were referred by the district.

“It’s been a tremendous benefit over the past five to seven years for the local school districts," said Bill Toomey, superintendent for Options for Youth. "Without a program like ours — operating with accredited classes that are free — the students would be out of luck.”

Toomey said that the charter schools' intention is not to lure students away from their districts. He said that 95 percent of students return to their respective districts once summer classes have ended. 

Options for Youth receives supplemental funding from the state for its summer students at a daily rate of $16 per student. L.A. Unified gets money for summer school through categorical funds, which it can put to many uses. The cash-strapped district opted to use that money for the regular school year.

For the moment, next year's summer school program remains at $1 million. Deasy said that'll likely change after discussions for the 2014-2015 budget begin this fall.

A spokesperson for the district said the district is considering uone time allocation it received for implementing the Common Core State Standards.

“I’m anticipating being able to really put back significantly more sums of money to summer school," Deasy said.