Baltimore City school administrator Linda Eberhart envisions a scene straight from a high-tech, science-fiction film after students build robots as part of a new summer school math and science program.
"It's all just going to come together," Eberhart said, as she described how about 2,000 students will gather in August to scrimmage the dozens of robots on a field in the city.
"Students always ask, 'Why am I learning this?'" said Eberhart, the director of teaching and learning who is heading a host of summer school reforms in the city this year. "Kids are just going to be in awe when they build these."
Robotics are not the only new program on the agenda for summer school this year. Forensics, summer jobs and sports have also been added, after schools CEO Andrés Alonso funneled an additional $2.1 million of stimulus funds into the 2010 summer program budget to address summer learning loss in math and science in city schools, a challenge facing districts nationwide.
Alonso said he also decided to invest the stimulus funds — which will dry up next year — in middle and high school reforms because of concerns about the previous summer school curriculum, which included a watered-down version of school-year instruction and allowed attendance to account for 80 percent of the grade. More than 13,000 children were enrolled in summer school last year.
"My definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result," Alonso said. "Part of the work is to bring goals and a sense of accountability and make sure we do it a different way. There are so many ideas out there, you just have to tap them."
Eberhart, a middle school math teacher for 40 years, and her staff in the city schools' teaching and learning office zeroed in on the basics of summer school. The city will require that attendance be checked by the central office every week and will account for the same amount of a grade as during the school year. Some programs will send home weekly report cards; others will be subject to pre- and post-testing to measure progress.
"We want [students] to realize that this is important to their future," she said. "They have to learn when they come, or we have failed."
Next, Eberhart set her sights on strengthening the summer school curriculum for middle and high school students through projects and incentives.
"We need to make it a place where kids can come and have fun," she said, adding that projects might also boost middle schools' historically low attendance. Of the 2,846 middle-schoolers who enrolled in summer school last year, 1,837 attended just 50 percent of the time.
Middle-schoolers will be able to choose from 16 sites and a plethora of projects, depending on whether they want to learn fractions and decimals, take swim lessons or learn physics through golf. The students who opt for a Science Technology and Engineering Mathematics site will take part in the robot-building project, which starts June 28 and runs for six weeks.
Students transitioning from middle to high school can also participate in a new summer program, taking math courses — taught by their ninth-grade math teacher — on college campuses. During the courses, students will figure out forensics problems using algebra. Those students also will be paid a $1,000 stipend if they hold a summer job.
Unlike past years, high school students who take summer school to pass high school assessments — needed for graduation — will be required to take the test at the end of the summer. If they pass, they'll be reimbursed the $150 registration fee that they paid to attend the course.
Schools are gearing up to partake in the new initiatives. Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary Middle School, which will have one of the robotics programs, has a group of students traveling to other South Baltimore schools to recruit their peers to the program.
Science teacher Leaha Thomas, who has taught summer school in the past, said she is excited for the prospects of the new programs.
"It's going to really flourish here because we have kids with a strong interest in science, but that technology piece will bridge that gap they have with math," she said.
Parents are just as excited.
"Summer school is very important to a lot of us as parents, because we don't consider summer school as a baby-sitting option," said Tameika McKnight, president of Carter G. Woodson's parent-teacher organization. "It's important that there's always something here to learn."