What's the difference between ESY and summer school?
The main difference between extended school year (ESY) and summer school is that ESY is designed to prevent kids from regressing by allowing them to maintain the skills they learned during the school year, while summer school is designed to catch kids up who missed learning during the year or accelerate them so they can progress faster.
Under IDEA, many kids with IEPs qualify for ESY if the skills they have learned during the school year are likely to regress during the vacation period. In practice, this usually means a four-week special education program in the summer vacation aimed at maintaining the skills already learned. However, an IEP team has the freedom to consider other options for ESY, including during winter and spring break, and also funding specialized instruction such as tutoring. Schools cannot limit ESY to specific disabilities or unilaterally limit the amount or duration of service.
As the purpose of ESY is to maintain learning, typically these programs are not a full day, and any related services are provided for half the service minutes that are listed on the child’s IEP during the regular school year. Since teachers and classified unions have seniority rules for which staff are offered additional work, the ESY program is likely not going to be taught by your child’s regular teacher or therapists. Many districts contract with non-public providers for ESY.
No new skills will be taught, only reinforcing what was already learned during the year. For example, if your child has a Specific Learning Disability such as dyslexia and needs an Orton Gillingham-type structured literacy program, ESY would practice the phonemes and blends already introduced but cannot introduce new ones. For this reason, it might be better to discuss with your IEP team summer tutoring for intensive remediation if you are looking for your child to catch up.
Most school districts offer ESY only in a very restricted setting, such as a moderate to severe self-contained classroom. A court case (T.M. v. Cornwall CSD, 63 IDELR 31 (2nd Cir. 2014) in 2014 established that the school district should provide ESY in the same educational setting as the regular year, but until recently, many districts did not have any general education summer school. The court held that districts don't have to create regular summer programs for this purpose; they can contract with other public or private schools. They may host a parent funded summer school and credit recovery classes run by a private camp or even their education foundation on their campuses, but as these are not school-sponsored activities, they are not subject to IDEA but can be used by a district to provide ESY in LRE. (They are subject to ADA if held on a public school campus).
If a child is normally included in general education with supports during school year, but was offered a special education class for ESY, a court has held that LRE applies equally to ESY even if school does not offer regular summer programs.
Since the pandemic, many schools have been running free summer schools for all kids at public expense. This provides parents with an opportunity to request that ESY be provided in the least restrictive environment with support. However, bear in mind that the purpose of these programs may be catching kids up by teaching them new skills rather than the maintenance objective of ESY. Many of these summer school programs are by invitation as opposed to your child’s entitlement under federal law to receive ESY.
In California, 2022 programs were mostly funded by learning loss recovery funds which were supposed to be targeted to students who had fallen behind during distance learning. In 2023, summer programs are mostly funded by Expanded Learning Opportunities introduced by Governor Newsom, which are specifically targeted at low-income students and English language learners. For this reason, some schools may have qualifications for their summer school that do not include all students with disabilities.