AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
School started this week in Florida, but some students still haven't finished their summer courses. Many needed to make up classes they failed during the school year, but this summer they had just one option, online school. As Sarah Gonzalez of member station WLRN reports, some students are now struggling to catch up.
SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Louis Gonzalez finished his freshman year at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Pasco County, but this year, he's still considered a freshman, although his schools has a different name for him.
LOUIS GONZALEZ: My school calls me a freshmore.
GONZALEZ: A freshmore?
GONZALEZ: By years I'm a sophomore, but I'm a freshman.
GONZALEZ: Louis failed English, algebra and physical science last year. He thought he'd be able to make up those classes through summer school.
GONZALEZ: That's really what I wanted to happen.
GONZALEZ: But he couldn't because summer school was only available to seniors and some juniors. Five years of multimillion dollar budget cuts has meant school districts across Florida have had to scale back their summer offerings. Ella Shanks is in charge of curriculum in Orlando. She says there just hasn't been enough money to open up all the buildings and offer summer school to everyone who needs it.
ELLA SHANKS: So we focused on the students who needed credits in order to graduate with their cohorts on time. We wanted to make sure that that's given priority.
GONZALEZ: In Ft. Lauderdale, there was no summer at all, only night school for high schoolers and those classes were all online. Freshmore Louis Gonzalez is retaking English through Florida's virtual school program, but he says he couldn't imagine taking math or science online. He says he wishes he'd known about his choices a lot sooner.
GONZALEZ: While all my friends are sophomores, I'm a freshman. That's just embarrassing. I want to be in the right grade with my friends where I'm supposed to be. So, lesson has definitely been learned.
GONZALEZ: It may have taught him to do better in school this year, but it could also make it harder for Louis to catch up. The risk is that he keeps falling behind, says Karen Aronowitz, the president of Miami's teachers union.
KAREN ARONOWITZ: Students in struggling schools and in struggling communities, very often summer school is the link that keeps them current so that when they begin a new school year, they're ready to go and they haven't fallen behind.
GONZALEZ: The Miami-Dade school district spent nearly $17 million on summer school in 2008, the last year it was offered to everyone district wide. The reduced options it offers now cost $5 million. Miami student Stacy Soriano says she knows schools are facing tough budget cuts, but...
STACY SORIANO: No, I would not cut summer school for kids who failed the class.
GONZALEZ: The 17-year-old flunked algebra II. Over the summer, she decided to retake it virtually. When she needs help with a math problem, she calls or texts her teacher.
SORIANO: Sometimes, yeah, she'll get back to me, like, in 10 minutes. Sometimes she won't be able to get back to me, like, two, three days.
GONZALEZ: The school year has already started and she's only halfway done with the online course.
SORIANO: For somebody who failed it, they need a teacher right there by them because they failed it for a reason. And it just makes it really, really hard. I'm kind of a visual person. I got to see the math. And she's just telling you kind of what to write on the paper, so sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don't get it.
GONZALEZ: Robin Winder is with Florida virtual school. She acknowledges it's a challenge for teachers to be available whenever students need them. But she says they're filling a void left by school districts.
ROBIN WINDER: We do see a spike in the summer. We definitely want students to have choices. That's why we're here.
GONZALEZ: But when districts start limiting their summer school options, students say online classes become less of a choice and more like a last resort. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.