Jazzing it up, summer school style

Pittsburgh Public Schools hopes to attract more middle-schoolers to its program

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Because only a fraction of struggling middle-grade readers sign up for summer school, Pittsburgh Public Schools officials are trying something different to lure them in next year.

The district's central office already is sending employees school-to-school to recruit students for a five-week, Monday-through-Friday program to be organized like a summer camp.

The daylong sessions, to be held at a handful of schools citywide, will begin with camp meetings. Students will learn camp cheers, perform skits and hear from motivational speakers.

Also new is an approach designed to reinforce reading and writing skills while allowing students to explore new interests, unfamiliar topics or career options.

Students will choose which classes and workshops they'll attend, said Tanya Graham, literacy project manager. One proposed workshop is titled "Criminal Mastermind: Writing the Perfect Getaway Scene," and another is titled "Can You Make the Cut? Becoming a Surgeon."

The district announced plans for the camp in spring and provided additional details last week.

While the camp will be open to all rising sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, the district especially wants to enroll those who, test scores show, are struggling readers.

Yet that group has shown little interest in summer school, officials said, even though it's critical that they raise their game before high school.

The district's traditional four-week summer school, geared to struggling students in the elementary and middle grades, provided three hours of instruction in math and reading daily. Schools with full-day programs offered sports or other activities in the afternoon.

In January, about 2,700 students in fifth, sixth and seventh grades missed the proficiency mark on the 4Sight test, used to predict student performance on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA.

Only 648, or about 24 percent, of those students signed up for summer school, and only 295, or about 11 percent, completed the program.

Because reading is a concern -- on the most recent PSSA, 59.5 percent of middle-grade students scored advanced or proficient in math, compared to 56.7 percent in reading -- the camp will focus exclusively on literacy. And officials hope the camp design and stepped-up recruitment will boost enrollment. Four mornings a week, students will study reading and writing through a theme they select.

Tentative options include "McDonald's, Mars and Flying Cars: Spectacular Science," with a look at environmentalism, fitness and the solar system; "Let Your Creative Juices Flow: Exploring the Arts," with units on film production, dance and music; and "It's a Small World After All: Global Cultures," with exploration of food, modern heroes and "surviving disasters around the world."

Those ideas came from student focus groups, said Lauren Meehan, project coordinator.

One morning each week, students will attend a workshop designed to stir a passion or prepare them for college and work. Examples include the workshops on crime writing and becoming a surgeon.

Embedded in the lessons and workshops will be exercises designed to help students better understand organization of text, an author's point of view, inferences, context clues and antonyms -- all areas in which the city's middle-grade students have struggled on the state test.

"It is the higher-level thinking skills that we're hoping to get at," said Nancy Kodman, the district's executive director of strategic initiatives.

Each afternoon, students will participate in an extracurricular activity, sponsored by a community group and related in some way to reading and writing.

The district initially intended to finance the camp next summer and in 2011 with $16.6 million in federal stimulus money passed through the state.

Officials modified the plans after learning they'd be shorted $6 million, part of a pot of stimulus money the state diverted for other education uses. The shift means fewer field trips and a narrower range of afternoon activities for campers.

The district will operate the regular summer school next year for students in elementary grades.

The district traditionally has held summer school in June and July. Next year, the regular program and the middle-grade camp will be held in July and August to gear students up for the school year.

Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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