Algebra didn’t go great the first time around for Austin Beamer. It did the second time.

The Skyview student ripped through the computer-based course in School District 2’s summer school program, finishing it early for the year Friday.

“I did like being able to work at my own pace,” the sophomore said.

SD2’s credit recovery program during June and July works to help get high school students who failed a class back on track to graduate. About 230 students are enrolled this year and attend classes in several subject areas at the Lincoln Center.

While there’s no official accounting of summer school programs in Montana, offerings appear to be slim, especially in rural areas, and classes target credit recovery or remediation. Billings has no large-scale elementary program. Locally, Lockwood and Laurel have summer school programs; it's unclear how many other districts do. 

Montana provides no direct funding for summer school, and districts often find it hard to justify summer programs while budgeting for the nine-month school year.

“It truly comes down to a funding issue,” said SD2 central administrator Brenda Koch, when talking about hopes to expand elementary summer school offerings.

The summer slide, a well-documented period of learning loss during the summer, can hit struggling students especially hard. Kids from low-income families typically experience a dip in reading skills over the summer, while other students improve or hold steady. The math skills of all students usually take a hit.

Billings isn't without summer learning options. The public library has reading programs. Groups like the Boys and Girls Club of Yellowstone County continue services for kids. SD2 has a reading and lunch program in city parks. There are a plethora of summer camps.

But it can be difficult to build academic rigor into a camp-like environment — and research has shown rigor is essential for turning the summer slide into a springboard for the upcoming school year.

SD2 decided to emphasize rigor in the credit recovery program during changes made in 2013. The program was opened up to juniors and seniors, when it was previously available to only freshman and sophomores. A writing coach was added to work with students one-on-one. Students are only allowed to miss two days, and the program has a $50 fee.

Since adding the fee, students have had better passing and attendance rates, Koch said.

“There’s some skin in the game.”

Summer funding

Mike Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of States, co-authored a report on summer school funding in 2009. While that work hasn’t been formally updated, general trends have emerged.

“We’re sort of having a change in the way we think about summer school,” he said. “The old school way of thinking used to be, 'summer school seems important so let’s fund that.'”

States are moving toward providing funding for “extra” programs, and letting schools decide how to spend it, he said. Some school focus on tutoring, some on after school programs, some on summer school.

In Montana, making sure there’s consistent funding can be an issue. Dennis Parman, the former deputy superintendent for the Office of Public Instruction who now leads the Montana Rural Education Association, said the his district occasionally offered summer school when he was the superintendent in Havre.

“Some years we did it, some years we didn’t,” he said. “It depended on the year, it depended on where funding was at.”

During SD2’s strategic planning, a plan for an elementary summer school program was sketched out, Koch said.

“We just haven’t found a sustainable funding source for it,” she said. “If we start it, we want to be able to continue it every year.”

Districts are often wary of shifting funds from existing programs, Parman said.

“I think it’s one of those things that people aren’t just ready to jump into the deep end of the pool on,” he said.

Transportation is also an issue; student busing in Montana is paid for by an automatic levy on local taxpayers, but it doesn’t include summer transportation. A 2015 bill championed by the East Helena School District would have changed that, but it never got a vote. The district has promoted a similar idea this year.

Some rural districts also struggle staffing summer programs, given their small pool of teachers.

“Sometimes there’s people willing to do that, sometimes there’s not,” Parman said.

Research has shown that expansive summer school programs — not just remediation or credit recovery — are most effective, Griffith said. And any program needs to be academically challenging.

“That’s a great idea and it seems to make sense and they had research to back it up,” he said, “but that also means there’s going to be a greater cost.”

“If you talk the summer slide, having kids come in during the summer and having them play soccer isn’t going to help with that.”

'Individualized' approach

Courtney Hamblin worked one-on-one with students at the Lincoln Center on Friday, like she has every other day of summer school for the last two years.

Some students are in summer school not because they struggling academically, but because for whatever reason — personal factors, illness, apathy — they didn’t turn in their work. With a second chance, many of those students zip through the curriculum.

Some students struggle in a larger classroom.

With individual attention, “they’re more receptive to it. They’ll ask more questions, they feel more comfortable,” said Hamblin, a West High English teacher.

For students who are struggling academically, Hamblin arranges for closer collaboration with the summer school English teacher for their class — a “double team” approach.

“It’s really individualized,” she said.

There’s also a lot of content to cover.

“They’re trying to complete a semester class in five weeks,” said Kari Field, a West High science teacher who directs the summer program.

Officials are also wary of students relying too much on summer school as a fallback option.

“We don’t really want to nurture that,” she said. “We want them to be successful during the school year.”

That’s why Hamblin focuses on the writing process. It’s not so much about offering help with an individual assignment as helping them hone skills used in writing any paper — structure, crafting an argument, researching effectively.

The more personal format of SD2’s summer school — Field handles student discipline to help teachers avoid becoming “the bad guy” — helps drive those lessons home.

“I sit next to them,” Hamblin said. “They can’t not be engaged.”