What summer vacation? Some students use summer school as an opportunity, not as make-up

Junior-to-be Shekinah Kiagiri, 16, is taking swimming this summer to free up space in her schedule for college-level health care courses in the fall.

Shortly before 8:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, 20 swimsuit-clad students lined the bleachers alongside the pool at Ralston High School.

School had just let out for the summer the week before. But these students were already back in class — P.E. class, or swim/activity as it’s known in Ralston, which requires the class for graduation.

So why climb out of bed early and head back to school after just being turned loose for the summer?

While most summer school courses are still being offered for kids who need to polish skills, catch up on credits or retake a course, area high schools in recent years have gradually offered more opportunities for students to knock out an extra class or two over the summer in order to free up space in their schedules during the school year.

That space might allow a student to take both chorus and band, squeeze in a career-related elective or get ahead of the usual course progression and fit in more advanced placement or dual credit classes before graduation.

Scheduling can get particularly complicated for students in specialized programs, such as the International Baccalaureate programs offered at Millard North and Omaha Central High Schools. Summer P.E. and health classes have become particularly popular in the last few years.

Shekinah Kiagiri opted to take Ralston’s swim/activity class in order to work around the college-level courses she’ll take next year as a participant in the University of Nebraska Medical Center High School Alliance, a partnership that helps students prepare for health care careers.

She’ll attend those classes in the afternoon, which limits her to two classes the rest of the day under Ralston’s block scheduling. Shekinah, who will be a junior this fall, also is taking speech this summer, another of the handful of summer classes available to all students at Ralston.

Getting up early for class, even over summer break, really isn’t a big deal for her.

“I’m still in the mentality of school, so it doesn’t really feel like summer,” she said before slipping into the pool with her classmates.

At the same time, schools — not to mention parents — are increasingly aware of the need to keep kids engaged enough over the summer to avoid summer slide. It’s the idea, documented over the past several decades, that kids’ skills, particularly in reading, can slip over the long summer break if not exercised.

To that end, many area elementary and middle schools, often in conjunction with other organizations, match summer enrichment with the summer school classes they offer for younger students.

“Overall, we’re seeing more summer programs offered for this,” said Kara Hutton, the Millard district’s coordinator of special programs. “Not only is it a way to get credits recovered, there’s a lot of research out there that supports summertime learning as a major way to reduce summer slide and for kids in poverty to reduce achievement gaps. That’s part of our goal.”

And some kids, Hutton said, just like summer school. “It’s an opportunity to take a course and be with their friends and socialize,” she said.

That was part of the motivation for Dawson Reckinger’s early-morning swim.

“I wanted to do summer school to get a head start on some of my credits and to have something to do over the summer,” said the soon-to-be sophomore.

Districts vary with regard to how many high school summer classes are open primarily to students needing support and how many are open to all comers. In most, it’s a handful or fewer that are offered for all students.

Most of the Omaha Public Schools high school summer classes are open only for credit recovery, although the district does allow for some special circumstances.

“Anything we can do to help accrual-wise, we try to do that,” said Susan Christopherson, director of secondary education. Core classes typically are offered, with each building putting together its own plan based on students’ needs.

ReNae Kehrberg, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, said the district’s summer school program has grown over the past decade, given the emphasis on students completing credits and keeping on track to graduate. Rigor in high school coursework, too, has increased over the past 15 years, particularly with the advent of state and national standards.

The Council Bluffs district traditionally has made any classes offered during the summer available not only for credit recovery but also for credit advancement, said Ann Mausbach, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. But many of the district’s high school students work during the summer.

“Our need has not been that great for credit advancement,” she said.

The Millard Public Schools and the Lincoln Public Schools, on the other hand, each list about 40 general education classes, which are open to students in either situation as long as they’ve taken the prerequisites. The districts combine on-site classes at one high school each.

Hutton, with the Millard district, estimated that up to 40 percent of the students in summer school are recovering credits. The district offers an incoming summer program for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Last year, 744 high school students took 1,103 courses.

Both the Millard and Lincoln districts open classes to students from outside their districts. About 100 of the 1,250 students signed up for Lincoln’s summer session, which started Monday, come from other schools, said Pam Robinson, summer school principal. She estimated that 75 percent of students in summer school are recovering credits. She tries to shake up offerings about every three years and include fun options. She also adjusts to changes in graduation requirements.

Districts with higher rates of students in poverty typically do not charge for summer classes. Schools also waive charges for students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

P.E. appears to be the fast-growing summer class, with most Omaha-area districts offering it. OPS, for example, offered it last year for the first time at a couple of schools. This summer, the district is up to 39 sections at six high schools.

Ralston, which has offered its swim/activity class for about five years, has had a waiting list for the past two years, said Kristi Gibbs, assistant superintendent for learning.

Nebraska districts are required to offer two years of high school P.E., though districts can set their own graduation requirements.

Jeff Rippe, Bellevue assistant superintendent, said summer P.E. and health classes are particularly well-suited to the two- or three-hour blocks common for summer classes.

The majority of students taking P.E. in Bellevue, Ralston and Elkhorn are incoming freshmen, whose schedules typically are filled with required courses.

For them, summer school also helps ease the transition to high school, said Tracy Wallerstedt, a middle school teacher who teaches the activity portion of Ralston’s summer P.E. class.

“They’ll feel more comfortable,” she said. “They’ll know where to go and they’ll know people.”

Most districts also offer a slate of core classes, such as math and English, for high school students who need to make up credits. Demand for those is generally steady.

Some districts, including Ralston, allow students to take some credit recovery online. The Council Bluffs district this summer will offer credit recovery completely online for the first time, said Mausbach, the assistant superintendent.

Bellevue’s Rippe said schools also are busy with extracurricular programs such as band, DECA and weight-lifting.

“Our buildings are busier than they used to be in the summer,” he said.

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