LAUSD Fights Summer Brain Drain Amid Budget Cuts
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, you might have followed that terrible story out of New York, where a youngster was killed just walking a few blocks home alone. Something he had begged his parents to let him do. We revisit the topic of so-called free range parenting and how to give kids independence while keeping them safe. That's coming up later in the program.
But first, a conversation about summer school. Back in the day, it was often just for students who needed remedial class work, but it has become much more. For many students it's a chance to get ahead academically or to get into something extra challenging. And for many parents, it's a way to keep kids busy in the summer while avoiding the summer brain drain.
But budget cuts have meant no summer school or many fewer options for many school systems around the country. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District cut its summer school funding from last year's $8 million to this year's $3 million. And now thousands of students will no longer have access to summer classes.
To find out what this means for students, parents and the district, we've invited L.A. school superintendent, John Deasy, to speak with us. He's joining us from his office in Los Angeles. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
JOHN DEASY: Thank you, Michel, for having me.
MARTIN: So summer school hasn't completely shut down, but could you give us an idea of how many classes you can offer this summer versus last summer?
DEASY: We have a very minimal summer school program and we used to have an extraordinarily robust one. So to give you, in a sense, of the change, in the 2008-2009 summer year, we had a summer school program budget of $42 million. And this year, as you mentioned, we have one of $3 million.
So we are providing credit recovery for our high school students, specifically 10th, 11th, 12th graders, which is a minimal program. About 20,000 youth are involved in that program.
MARTIN: So, by credit recovery you mean that if you are in danger of not passing, then you can take summer school? Other than that, no?
DEASY: Correct. And in danger of not passing a course, which would mean either your diploma or the ability to move from 10th grade to 11th grade.
MARTIN: How did you come up with that framework?
DEASY: These are the most critical courses for students and their property right as obtaining their diploma. And we are working very, very hard with other agencies to provide additional support to students. But we really needed to focus on the most critical issue, which was graduation.
MARTIN: You know, as you mentioned, for many families, or for some families summer school has become an alternative to pricey summer camps. It has become a place just for kids to be supervised. And also, for a lot of people kind of tapped into this idea of the summer brain. That having, you know, three months off or two months off from any learning is just a bad idea for kids in general. And so, it would seem that it's a step backwards in all of those areas.
DEASY: Yes. That is all true. And in our city there's just one additional component that we should be mindful of. And that is, as folks may know, about three-quarters of our youth live in circumstances of poverty. And so, summer school is also traditionally an opportunity for meals. And so, for our youth who attend summer school, there is also a lunch program. And so, students who traditionally have availed (unintelligible) of that also don't get that as well. And that's also deeply worrisome.
MARTIN: Did you try to fight these cuts?
DEASY: Oh, absolutely. We fight these cuts on a daily basis in Sacramento. But this is a state which is really disinvested in public education. That's probably for a different show, the vast inequity in terms of what's being spent per prisoner versus per kindergartener. But we're in a position where we have continually cut back support to public education.
As far as the programs that we have in our schools, we certainly have helped parents understand that there's 180 or so summer sites around other various communities who are providing various summer learning programs. And there are certainly citywide opportunities for lunch programs for students who are eligible for that. But it is not what it once was, as you mentioned.
MARTIN: What feedback are hearing from parents now? Or are you getting feedback from parents who...
DEASY: Parents are trying to find locations for our students of greatest need, certainly for meal programs. And we've helped parents do that. It's been the high school piece that has been the most difficult. So credit recovery, in other words, students who are in the greatest danger of not passing, are what we're holding. But credit advancement, which was once an opportunity to get enrichment, that has been probably one of the greatest concerns.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We're talking about summer school budget cuts with the L.A. school superintendent John Deasy. That district has had to cut back at summer school offerings radically in response to budget cuts. What about the message that learning needs to continue throughout the year? That you can't just kind of shut the brain off in the summer and coast and then come back in the fall and be ready to learn. Were there any steps that you were trying to take to try to forestall that summer brain drain? Is there anything you can do?
DEASY: Oh, absolutely. That message is pretty clear, and I think pretty widely understood at this point. So we provide students with suggested work and reading lists when they leave us for that summer break. We also have a robust Web portal for students and parents to get information about where other activities are that they can plug into so they can continue their own learning over the course of the summer.
And the gap in terms of helping students both catch up is now becoming an opportunity for hybrid opportunities. So, online opportunities. And we help link students to where they can get additional support over the summer. And these supports, you know, being free both technological and Web opportunities for students. That is still there. But, again, it is scaled back for sure.
MARTIN: The Los Angeles Times also reported this week that the district is reexamining its policy discouraging social promotion. That's the practice of letting kids advance to the next grade even when they are not fully prepared and that report tied this effort directly to the loss of summer school. First of all, is that true? And are you worried that the district is sending the message that the way to deal with budget cuts is to lower academic standards?
DEASY: Well, we don't believe that the way to deal with budget cuts is to lower academic standards. We believe that the way to deal with academic standards issue, especially with the Common Core Curriculum coming to California, is to provide students and our youth with a robust learning experience, which means an investment.
We are very concerned about the fact that we are anxiously looking forward to incorporating the new Common Core Curriculum. But we also want to make sure that we're not actually allowing students to move along if they are not prepared. Or worst of all, if they certainly - we know that they're not going to do well in the next grade. So, as you mentioned, we've established a task force, a report that will be out in the fall to the board about steps being taken.
MARTIN: And I want to mention, because I don't think you will bring this up, that one of the other steps that you took is to cut your own pay. You cut your own salary about 17 percent in order to help defray operation costs even as a symbolic gesture.
DEASY: Yeah, we have all taken pay cuts and furloughs in this system. And it still is not enough. This is a huge dilemma in California.
MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, a different topic. That the governor just signed recently a law that mandates the teaching of LGBT history in the public school curriculum. He left it up to various school districts, including your own, to figure out how that is done. But I'm wondering how you respond to that at a time when you're cutting the things that you feel very strongly about in terms of keeping kids prepared and giving them various options. And then the state is adding another requirement. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are about that.
DEASY: I mean the thoughts are that, you know, we wanted to provide an educational experience that respects the diversity of our society and of our youth. And so, one of the pieces of incorporating this while we have already been there, and I believe, doing a good job with that, this particular increased mandate does not necessarily fall as a huge burden like the other ones that occasionally come from Sacramento.
MARTIN: So isn't it another unfunded mandate, though?
DEASY: For this particular piece, curricula-wise and putting that into our daily work is not. There are plenty of unfunded mandates. This one is not as difficult since we have already been ahead of the curve on this.
MARTIN: John Deasy is a superintendent for L.A. Unified School District. He joined us from his office in Los Angeles. Superintendent Deasy, thanks so much for joining us.
DEASY: Thank you very much, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.