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Schools That Build Summer “Bridges” for Students Pay a Price

Summer "bridge" programs are critical to preventing summer learning loss among high poverty students -- but public funding to support them remains scarce, at best.
 
 
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On a muggy August afternoon last year, nearly 75 Bronx students could be found playing orchestra instruments to the tune of Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues in the auditorium of M.S. 223.

They were gathered to mark the close of three weeks of arts, music, and math instruction they received through the school’s first summer “bridge” program. M.S. 223 is one of dozens of city middle and high schools to invite to incoming students for summer classes meant to immerse them in school culture and prevent them from forgetting what they learned the previous year.

“Summer bridge is important because we think of our model as a year-round school,” said Rashid Davis, principal of Brooklyn’s nascent Pathways in Technology Early College High School. “That way we’re not dealing with that summer learning loss than can go from two to four months of material, especially for high-poverty students. We can’t expect them to magically come in here with the skills they need.”

Indeed, researchers have pegged students’ regression — known as the “summer slide” — at the equivalent of two months of school or more. City officials recognize the challenge: This summer, the Department of Education is  piloting a small program in the South Bronx for students who are struggling but not failing.

But the funding for that program, Summer Quest, comes from private donors. Public funds, for the most part, are earmarked only for the thousands of students across the city who are required to attend summer school because of low test scores or poor grades.

That means schools that develop programs for incoming students who aren’t already in trouble are on their own to scrounge up funding.  

Principals say they turn to outside help or struggle to find wiggle room in their annual budgets to finance the programs, which range from three-day-long orientations to six-week intensive geometry classes. The school leaders say the programs are invaluable for students who can make it, but most can’t afford to run a program large enough for every student to participate.

Prioritizing optional summer programming usually means cutting corners elsewhere.

“We absolutely have to make tradeoffs because there is no unique funding that comes in for summer bridge,” Davis said. “You have to decide to make that type of investment. [Tradeoffs] could be with supplies, or it could be half a person’s salary, it really depends.”

Davis has strongly encouraged PTECH’s rising ninth- and 10th-graders to enroll in a six-week geometry course starting this month. As the new school grows to its full size, Davis said he would like to offer six weeks of summer enrichment classes or college-level courses to every student. He also wants to give every incoming ninth-grader the chance to pass geometry before he or she even begin high school, thereby eliminating one hurdle on the course toward calculus.

Those plans will cost him. This summer’s program will cost about $30,000 in teacher wages and classroom materials for the 200 students, he said. Those funds come out of the school’s total budget of $1,005,000.

Davis said he is used to the budget wrangling. As principal of Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, he sometimes had to pull funding from his school-year budget to pay for classes for students who were mandated to attend summer school. The city allocates funding to each school for summer remediation, but the budgets are based on estimates made before students take their final exams.

Sana Nasser, the principal of Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, said she usually has no money left over after meeting the needs of students who are required to attend summer school to fund enrichment. But she is still able to run a small bridge program for a quarter of her incoming students with the help of the community-based organization Sports and Arts.