Story last updated at 4:29 p.m. Thursday, June 20, 2002

Summer school offers students personal attention
by Carey James
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Carey James, Homer News
Aaron Hedrick, 11, works with teacher Robin Ingles on an Internet search as part of a summer school program at the Homer Iddle School this month.  
After only a year learning English, 13-year-old Luis Cosio speaks his new language well enough to joke around with classmate Cora Towbridge.

But he still needs extra help if he's going to read quickly enough to keep up with class work, pass state-mandated benchmark tests, and go on to excel in his educational career.

Lucky for Cosio and 64 other students in the Homer area, the state has funneled a significant chunk of money to remediation programs in the form of Learning Opportunity Grants. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has used around $250,000 this year to fund a newly intensified summer school program aimed at helping students meet the recently enacted standards.

Cosio and his peers, some 300 to 400 districtwide, are spending their June mornings working on reading and math skills in small group settings. Teachers work with groups of six to seven students using a combination of computer programs and instruction. Some students in Cosio's class have improved their reading a whole grade level in only two weeks.

"These students are constantly challenged," said Cosio's teacher Robin Ingles. "We are able to give them a lot of attention."

Ingles said the small class sizes and continuous evaluation allow her to know where each student stands on certain skills and minimizes behavioral problems and other distractions that occur in larger class settings.

While summer school has occurred each year, programs varied widely. This year, the district stepped up the tempo, funding a summer school principal in five Peninsula communities and housing classes for a variety of needs under one roof. The district also provided lesson plans, computer programs and other resources.

Students like Cosio are identified as potential candidates for the program from their standardized test scores. District Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Gary Whitely said each student's parents are asked to make a commitment to have their children attend all summer school sessions.

Students will be tested again at the end of the June, and statistics will be analyzed to examine the success of the program in specific areas. While all the testing may sound impersonal, Whitely said the district can virtually predict the future success of a student by statistics showing how fast they can read or where their math skills are. For example, statistics show that if a student is reading 40 words per minute at the first grade level, they are almost certain to pass their first benchmark exam in third grade.

"We are not saying, 'Gee, I guess we should work on this,'" Whitely said. "We are actually being quite analytical about it."

While the reading and math programs the students are using are innovative, and other remediation programs exist during the school year to help students, few can discount the value of the small class sizes for providing an intimate learning environment where even small improvements are noticed immediately.

"Nothing builds success like success," said Whitely.

Glen Szymoniak, Homer summer school principal, said the students recognize the value of this program and are responding.

"Kids are seeing this as an opportunity to learn. They are working hard," he said. "This is another opportunity for them to catch up and fill in some gaps in their learning."

Szymoniak said the experience is inspiring for the teachers as well, who get to see what gains can be made with small groups and intense programs. The only down side, he said, is that the summer school ends.

"It makes you wonder why we are not given these resources all year long," he said.