Error forces Calif. kids into summer school

Image: Students play on the playground during a lunch break at Rolling Ridge Elementary School
Students play on the playground during a lunch break Wednesday at Rolling Ridge Elementary School in Chino Hills, one of the schools affected by the district clerical error.Jae C. Hong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's a kid's worst nightmare — just as the last bell has rung for summer break, a school district's error sentences students to another six weeks in class.

That's what happened at two Southern California schools, where administrators face a $7 million penalty from the state after cutting a few school days too short.

Scrambling to comply with state law, they began makeup days June 15 while their state assemblyman hurries to push a bill through the Legislature that could spare their sabotaged summer vacation from a rare technicality.

The Chino Valley Unified School District discovered in April that Friday class schedules at Rolling Ridge Elementary School in Chino Hills and Dickson Elementary School in Chino were five to 10 minutes shorter than the state legally allows. While the schools both meet the state-mandated minimum 54,000 minutes of classroom time annually, they fell just shy of 180 minutes on Fridays.

Legally, those 34 short days don't count as school days, and the district could lose all the $7 million allotted for the student attendance. Its solution is to spend $200,000 on teachers and other costs to keep the hundreds of kids in school for 34 more days.

"We try to be rule followers here, so we'll try to do whatever needs to be done," said Amy Nguyen-Hernandez, principal of Rolling Ridge.

Parents don't mind
The problem is, report cards were final on June 7 and attendance can't be enforced, so Rolling Ridge has seen attendance plummet. While the school has about 280 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders enrolled, the midsummer sessions average just 40 to 60 students.

As school let out Wednesday, parents, baby sitters and students had mixed reactions about their fated summer break.

"I think we should be having fun, not going to school," said Nelly Hejazi, 10, a fifth-grader who said she's opting to attend the classes only three days a week because there are no consequences for missing class.

Hejazi said the sessions are easier than classes during the school year. Her class spent a week making paper airplanes to study aerodynamics, and when they raced the planes, hers won.

She conceded, too, that the classes are a way to beat summer boredom.

For parents, the extra school days can be a boon.

"They do better stuff in school than they do at home," said Veronica Carrillo, 36, a stay-at-home mom who said Rolling Ridge's summer school has freed her to garden and play with her 7-year-old daughter.

'Kids are the pawns'
In Sacramento, the office of the California Department of Education said the district's case will go before the board of education for review. But the low attendance and lack of rigor of the makeup days could sway the decision on whether to count them as a legitimate substitute for the missed minutes.

"To the average person, it sounds like crazy bureaucracy that we count the number of minutes," said Susie Lange, deputy superintendent of fiscal services for the agency. "But those were put in place to make sure students receive an equal amount of education no matter where they are in the state."

A typical summer school day at the two campuses consists of language arts, in which students read books but aren't required to do book reports; physical fitness activities; math exercises; lunch; and an hour of "enrichment" such as designing paper airplanes or researching national parks.

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, a Republican from Chino Hills, is trying to rescue summer break with a bill that would waive penalties against the district once it completes 10 days of makeup classes. The bill passed the Assembly on Thursday.

But even in a best-case scenario, Hagman predicted, the bill won't clear the state Senate for eight to 10 days.

"These poor kids are the pawns in this whole mess," Hagman said.

Julie Gobin, spokeswoman for the Chino school district, said there's no question the schools will finish out the summer school program. It needs the money to offset repeated budget cuts that led to the layoffs of 99 teachers and the shuttering of three elementary schools.

The possible loss of funding "is too severe for us to jeopardize," she said.