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Few Westchester schools offer summer programs

Geometry teacher Michael Frank helps one of his

Geometry teacher Michael Frank helps one of his summer school students at Sleepy Hollow High School. (July 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

Math teacher Michael Frank tapped the timer on the Smart Board.

"I'm giving you two minutes to work on this one, because it's not simple," Frank said, referring to a geometry question on interior angles.

It's a Wednesday in the middle of a summer heat wave, but Sleepy Hollow High School is bustling with students who find their way through humid hallways to global studies and living environment classes.

Nearly 400 students attend summer school courses here -- half the population of the regular school year. But about half of the students here hail from other districts as far away as Mahopac and Bronxville.

That's because Sleepy Hollow is one of the few schools in Westchester County that still offers summer school courses. State aid cuts and the tax levy cap have caused some districts to stop funding programs.

Tightening budgets in Westchester County caused the Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES to shutter its academic summer school after 2010.

"In general, our districts have been less and less able to afford summer school," BOCES Superintendent Jim Langlois said. "Districts really are just stretched so thin they don't have the resources to provide nonmandated services."

Yet changes in the state's graduation requirements make Regents review courses essential for students who need to pass exams to graduate on time. The Class of 2012 is the first for whom the local diploma is no longer an option: From now on, a student must pass five Regents exams to graduate.

"These classes are helping me become a better test taker," said one student entering 11th grade in September at Sleepy Hollow. "I do good in class, but once it comes to the test, I don't pass."

The economic shifts that closed summer school for some helped Sleepy Hollow keep its summer school thriving. Although the BOCES cannot charge parents tuition, a school district can charge for out-of-district students. Sleepy Hollow asks $350 per course or $150 for a Regents review.

"We are aware that there aren't a lot of programs left in the area, so that has opened up the possibility of attracting students from other districts, which, frankly, helps pay the cost of our program." Superintendent Howard Smith said.

The district also uses grant funds to support the summer school program.

Sleepy Hollow High School Principal Carol Conklin said the district's support for summer school has been critical to increasing the graduation rate, which was 86 percent as of August 2011.

"Many of our students who take advantage of summer school wouldn't be able to pay out of pocket," Conklin said.

Middle-class families in districts without summer school find a way to send their children and to shuttle them sometimes long distances to Sleepy Hollow. Frank said many of his math students are in summer school because they had attendance problems at their home schools, yet they show up regularly for their makeup courses.

"We set it up as a privilege; a lot of students take that to heart," Frank said.

Districts with need keep basic programs

Although school districts in more affluent communities have eliminated summer school, those in the Hudson Valley that serve a greater proportion of low-income students are preserving programs but scaling back to basics.

The small-city school district of White Plains limits its offerings to makeup courses, with the exception of programs for English-as-a-second-language students. They also cap the number of slots, offering only a handful to out-of-district students.

"We don't go above what we can afford to staff," said Jessica O'Donovan, White Plains assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Ossining is one of the few districts that offers summer enrichment programs as well as makeup courses.

"We felt that it was very important to maintain as much as we could during the summer months," Ossining Superintendent Phyllis Glassman said.

In Ossining, 38 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2010, compared with only 4 percent in Yorktown, which does not offer summer school.

Rockland County BOCES still offers courses for its eight component districts, and despite worries about the economy, it hasn't seen a decline in enrollment.

"When it comes to summer school, the districts are going to help the kids who need to go to summer school to pass those Regents, because they want the kids to graduate in four years," spokeswoman Stephanie Gouss said.

White Plains has made classes more efficient and cost-effective by using technology. Computer-based courses allow one teacher to instruct students taking courses simultaneously, such as American government, economics and Global Studies II.

School districts with a greater population of students in need of summer help know that addressing the problem up front is going to save money in the long run.

"If a student doesn't graduate on time, there's a cost," Smith said. "You try to take the long view. It's like any good investment: If it pays off, it will save you later."

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