FINAL THOUGHT: Using Schools in Summer

Three unrelated incidents have me thinking about the use of schools in the summer. The first came when I attended a public meeting about a planned school building. The price tag was hefty and people raised objections. A telling one was that it was,“an awful lot of money to spend on a building that will be used only eight or nine months.”

Then, I attended a school board meeting in another community to discuss a new school that voters had approved. Each board member (I checked) had driven there in an air-conditioned car. Most had come from air-conditioned offices. We were meeting in an air-conditioned boardroom. The question was whether the new school should be air-conditioned.

The board voted that only the offices and a few selected spaces should have air conditioning. After all, who uses schools during the summer months?

The following day, I was chatting with the 13-year-old son of a friend. How was his summer going?“Pretty boring,” he admitted. The first couple of weeks after school ended, he had plenty to do, but after that first burst of energy, well, he was just hanging out.

Suppose, I asked, he could go to school; would he want to do that? No, he didn’t need remedial help. (That’s what summer school means.)

Suppose you could take something other than academic courses? If he could study music, then maybe learn tennis. “Yeah,” he replied, he’d like that.

Many kids, overjoyed when school ends in June, find themselves bored and looking for something to occupy them by July. Older students can seek jobs, and some younger ones go to day camps or other supervised activities. But kids in the middle really have little to do.

Schools are too expensive to be used only nine months a year. They should be open during the summer, not just for remedial or advanced academics, but for all sorts of enrichment activities that kids don’t get a chance to take during the regular year — whether its music, art, debating, learning chess or whatever else they might find interesting. The problem is that schools, already strapped for funds, can’t afford to run these additional programs. But they really can. They can be run, like adult education, as “profit centers” with fees to cover the costs of hiring staff, purchasing supplies and using the buildings. There needn’t be a profit, but the programs ought to be able to break even.

How about students who want to participate but can’t afford even a modest contribution? Almost every community has some resources — foundations, United Way, neighborhood organizations, even local businesses or the teachers’ union — that can be tapped to provide the support needed.

The threat of “summer school” is held over the heads of children who are failing, but that seems to me to be a poor use of buildings and opportunities. Sending kids back through the same material they didn’t get the first time around, and doing it in the heat of summer, certainly won’t get that student to appreciate the advantages education can bring. Opening up new worlds of opportunity might.

Using schools in the summer to run different kinds of programs — to expose students to areas they might not have been able to experience previously — would be a much more productive use of space and time.

And that, of course, brought me back to the third discussion, the one about providing air conditioning. Schools should be air-conditioned because they should be used 12 months of the year, for a variety of educational and enrichment programs that children (and adults) want and need.

Summer is an opportune time for students of all ages to get involved in creative learning opportunities, in short-term projects, in advanced study, in whatever they would like to do. It would take some creative planning (schools do need to be cleaned and repaired during the summer break) and probably a staff position, but the next time someone complains that schools are used only nine months a year, wouldn’t it be nice if you could counter by inviting that person to come to school in July or August and join in all of the activities that are taking place.

Schools should be open in the summer. They should offer a variety of programs, not just academics. And, they should be climate controlled. That should not be open to further debate.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."