When the Race for a Top College Intersects With Summer School
The New York Times, July 7, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

WINNETKA, Ill. - Midway through Wednesday morning in the second week of June, a brief beep sounded inside New Trier High School here, concluding another year of rigor and ambition. The seniors had already graduated wearing tuxedos and summer gowns, and members of the other classes gathered for a shortened schedule devoted mostly to receiving final grades. For perhaps the only time since the preceding
August, most had left their backpacks at home.

Just five days later, however, more than 1,800 of the freshmen, sophomores and juniors paraded back into the school at 8 a.m. sharp. They moved down the hallways, past empty lockers, stacked chairs and unplugged overhead projectors, to report to the gymnasium and receive their course and room assignments for summer school.

At a high school that ranks among the finest in America, sending 90 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges and far exceeding the national average on standardized tests, these were not students in academic trouble. In fact, barely 20 were repeating classes they had failed. Nearly 600 had enrolled, and paid tuition as high as $655, for the chance to take intensive courses like physics and honors history or get a head start fulfilling requirements in English and math.

Working at the pace of one week's material in every four-day class day, they would have completed a full semester by the end of July. Then, four weeks later, the fall term would begin.

Such is the changing shape of summer school, at least at high-end schools like New Trier. No longer does the program serve remedial purposes, handling a veritable ''Spoon River Anthology'' of misfits, miscreants and underachievers. In an era of superheated competition for seats in elite colleges, summer school belongs more to the likes of Sam Bendix, a 17-year-old who took accelerated chemistry and honors American history in past vacations so that he could pack his schedule with six major courses (and no lunch period) during the normal
academic year.

''I want to say on top of the game,'' he said with genuine and appealing modesty.

Like his classmates, Mr. Bendix has grown up in a society that functions on the unproven, unexamined premises that opportunity in America is scarce as a Saharan oasis and that a young person's future is irrevocably determined by the choice of college. Nobody in secondary education or college admissions applauds the stressful result, and the way it has deformed youth from a time of trial and error to one of workaholic obsession, but most feel unable to avoid it, except at presumed peril to themselves.

''One of the questions the colleges ask us is, 'Has the student taken the strongest program available?''' said James Conroy, a post-high school counselor at New Trier. ''And that's a question you need to answer. Summer school has become part of this constant positioning. It's a treadmill you're on and if you don't do what everyone else does, you'll be left behind. At least that's the perception.''

At the other end of the pipeline, Wylie Mitchell, the dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Me., said ruefully of summer school: ''It's part of the frenzy. Families are grasping at everything they perceive to be a possible plus in the admissions equation.''

So the bright and motivated children of suburban Chicago's prosperous North Shore spend their summers at the lab table or the computer terminal in New Trier, rather than being a lifeguard, bagging groceries or otherwise decompressing. If anything, New Trier's academic bent to summer school predates the current trend by several decades. As far back as the 1970's, nearly half the school's pupils were enrolling in the session.

Some students today take required classes over break not to enhance their college applications but to open more time in their fall or spring schedules for music or art courses they adore. Purely pedagogically, the summer school program here has much to recommend it. Its long periods and sharpened focus allow New Trier's faculty to function like college professors conducting seminars.

Intentionally or not, the nearly year-round schedule also addresses one of the major criticisms of American schools: that the academic calendar is too short and that students spend the summer forgetting half of what they just finished learning.

Still, the stakes have risen notably in the last 10 or 20 years, according to both Mr. Conroy and Dr. Henry Bangser, superintendent of the New Trier district. Twice as many New Trier students now apply annually to the most selective colleges and twice as many sit for the Advanced Placement exams in various subjects. The rankings published by U.S. News & World Report have rewarded colleges for, among other things, admitting the smallest possible number of an increasing pool of applicants.

By taking major classes in summer school, New Trier students can fill their regular schedule with the maximum number of honors or advanced-placement classes, culminating in the national Advanced Placement exams. Or they can lavish undivided attention on one especially challenging summer class in pursuit of an A. Dozens of students from outside the district on the North Shore, a few from as far as 30 miles away, seek places in New Trier's summer program.

Back in the early 1990's, Dr. Bangser said, his daughter was a star student at New Trier and decided not to take summer school because ''she'd worked so hard during the year that she wanted to get away from it.'' In today's climate, he said, she would be hard-pressed to avoid it.

If there is a voice of reason to be heard on the subject, it just may belong to Susan Sperling, a 15-year-old who wrote about the summer-school phenomenon for the sophomore class's newspaper. ''School and summer are merged for many people,'' she said in an interview. ''It's a long time to keep studying. It's school, more school and no break. It can create a burnout.''

While she comes from a typically accomplished New Trier family -- both parents are lawyers, and her father is an Amherst alumnus -- Miss Sperling has heeded her own counsel. This summer, she said, she is playing with her pet dog, Sasha. And, oh, yes, she is taking one course: driver's ed.

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