In an Atlanta classroom, kids clustered around a table trying to keep little boats they built from sinking.
Down the hall, another group worked on computers.
Minutes later, about a dozen students raced “puff-mobile” vehicles across a polished floor using only lung power to move the handmade, kid-engineered contraptions.
“It’s like learning, but they’re making it fun,” said Cayden Edwards, 10, who just finished fourth grade and is spending part of his summer at a Peyton Forest Elementary School day camp that focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
As summer break begins, so does the dreaded “summer slide.”
Most students lose some academic skills over the summer, when experts say the gap between wealthy and poor students grows. To combat the learning decline, Atlanta Public Schools and districts across the country are changing summer school, implementing new programs that, instead of reteaching lessons, emphasize the kind of hands-on enrichment that has long been available to higher-income families.
Most students lose two months of math skills in the summertime, reports the National Summer Learning Association. And poor students struggle even more, typically losing two to three months of reading abilities while higher-income students notch small gains. Summer after summer those losses add up to an achievement gap that has prompted the association to dub summer “the most inequitable time of the year.”
The learning loss seeps into the start of the next school year, when most teachers spend weeks rehashing lessons students forgot.
The Georgia Statewide Afterschool Network points to research that shows inequities have grown in recent decades. Families in the top 25 percent of income spend about $7,500 a year more on enrichment activities than those in the bottom fourth. Students from richer families go to more camps, summer programs and museums and buy more books — activities that can boost their academic performance.
APS launched a redesigned summer school last week after determining its remediation programs targeting failing students weren’t helping.
Past summer school attendance lagged, APS officials said, because participation felt like punishment. The old model prepped students to retake tests or hammered away at concepts they didn’t master during the school year. The summer offerings “felt dead,” said deputy superintendent David Jernigan.
The new approach was designed to serve a broader group of students, not just those who struggled during the school year, and follows a national trend in summer education to focus on enrichment and project-based learning that develop academic skills.
“We are getting away from this purely punitive, remedial kind of activity into something that is much more exciting and dynamic,” said Rachel Gwaltney, the Baltimore-based summer learning association’s director policy and partnerships. “The research is very clear that low-income students who don’t have access to these learning opportunities are falling behind.”
For Atlanta, a school district trying to turn around poor-performing schools and where three quarters of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, the stakes are high even in the summer.
“We recognize the critical nature of the summer slide for so many of our kids,” Jernigan said. “It is a serious concern for us, which is why we are trying to push as many kids as we can get in a program this summer.”
The programs, free to students, are offered at 45 elementary, middle and high school sites. APS will pay the roughly $4 million cost with a combination of sources including federal dollars.
Jernigan told school board members in February that APS wanted to double attendance. Roughly 4,000 attended summer school last year. This year, nearly 7,500 registered. It’s too early to know, however, how many will show up consistently to reworked summer programs, for which students can still enroll.
In addition to attendance, APS plans to evaluate the summer program’s success by surveying students, parents, and staff and examining graduation rates and the number of credits high schoolers recover. In the long term, the district plans to track attendance, grades, discipline and end-of-course assessments for students who participated in summer programs, and compare their results to students who did not attend.
Georgia Department of Education officials noted summer school is no longer about having students sit and do drills. The department has begun requiring districts seeking money under one grant program to partner with community groups.
“When a high quality program is put into place it can create academic growth that builds a child’s learning trajectory in an exponential way,” said Caitlin Dooley, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning.
School districts aren’t required to report the outcomes of summer learning to the state. Metro Atlanta districts take different approaches.
Clayton County Public Schools, like APS, touts a focus on enrichment and points to science, technology, engineering and math programs. Clayton’s offerings include a construction program and a “farm to table” garden lab.
Fulton County Schools highlights programs aimed at students whose state test scores indicate they need help in reading and math, among others. Four years ago, the district started a free summer school for sixth- through 12th-graders who failed certain courses.
Gwinnett County Public Schools enrolls more than 10,000 in various summer programs designed for students with academic needs, while the DeKalb County School District said it offers both enrichment camps and remediation programs.
Back at Peyton Forest, students from five elementary schools will spend June learning through a hands-on curriculum and doing computer coding, Lego robotics, art and experimental science.
The approach seems to be working for some students.
Nine-year-old Belle Williams lit up as she described carefully measuring straws down to the centimeter to make a pan flute. Kellie Hill, also 9, learned about buoyancy when she built a boat out of Popsicle sticks and aluminum foil and tried to make it float with the weight of 10 marbles.
“Summer school is more exciting,” said Amariyah Jackson, 8. “At school, we always have to do all these papers.”