Until last summer, Baltimore City students probably didn't think that Michael Phelps and African step dancers would have much to do with their learning.
But city school officials reported that middle-school students who used fractions to clock swimming lessons with the Olympic champion's coaches or calculated the proportion of rhythms by the performers showed significant progress in their ability to retain academic skills over the summer.
The lessons were part of Baltimore's revamped 2010 summer-learning program, being hailed as a potential model for the country after it produced notable results that reversed a district trend of murky progress and low attendance. The program is part of a larger effort to combat summer-learning loss nationwide.
According to statistics from city schools, more than 16,500 students enrolled last year in summer school, an increase of more than 3,000 in 2009.
In the new program, elementary school students noted double-digit percentage-point gains in language arts and math tests taken at the beginning and end of the summer; more than 60 percent of middle-schoolers who participated in newly created summer programs retained or gained skills; and more high-schoolers passed their high school assessment courses.
Baltimore allocated nearly $7 million — including a $2.1 million infusion of one-time stimulus funds — to summer school last year. The funds were used to boost achievement and skill retention by extending the time students spent in the classroom and by having lessons complemented by project-based activities.
"We've seen Baltimore City move toward this new vision of a summer school model … really breaking down from a remedial, punitive model and highlighting the importance of enrichment," said Ashley Stewart, senior director for community initiatives for the National Summer Learning Association.
"Baltimore really has the potential to be a national model for what summer school programs should look like," Stewart added. "You can see the fact that they've put a lot of work into this summer school program and have really had results."
The focus this year was on middle school math and science skills, where the bulk of summer-learning loss occurs, said Linda Eberhart, executive director of teaching and learning for the school system.
"For middle school grades, no one in the country has figured out how to prevent this loss," Eberhart said. "If we can solve this problem of summer-learning loss, we will be the most successful district in the world. … That's how important this is."
Eberhart, a math teacher of 40 years, was charged with the task of devising a plan that would address the nearly two months of material that middle-school students are estimated to lose every summer. She came up with an array of activities that included robotics, forensics and sports, including partnering with the Michael Phelps swim school, allowing students to get swim lessons from Phelps' coaches.
The school system developed 14 summer learning academies, the majority of which were devoted to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. About 400 middle-school students built robots, which they entered into the first-ever, district-wide VEX robotics competition at the end of the summer.
The middle-school successes, Eberhart said, were evidenced by the increase in the number of students who actually attended the program. Of the 2,000 students who signed up, 1,700 attended. In 2009, only 300 middle-school students showed up for summer school regularly.
Stewart identified the city's participation numbers as reason enough to celebrate. Many districts' summer programs suffer, he said, because they don't understand that "when you create a program that provides academic rigor with things that are fun and engaging, you have a captive audience."
However, middle school students who attended summer school to be promoted to the next grade struggled, particularly in sixth and eighth grade. But the remedial program had an 85 percent attendance rate. Only 30 of the 105 sixth-graders who attended summer school to move up were promoted; 35 of the 86 eighth-graders did. Seventh-graders did better, with 68 percent being promoted.
Eberhart said that the sixth- and eighth-graders had "many more deficits to overcome." She could not immediately say why sixth-graders struggled so much. Of eighth-graders, she said: "We didn't want to set them up for failure if they weren't ready to go to ninth grade."
While the school system will have to grapple with funding shortages for next year's summer program, among the district's priorities is to offer more enrichment programs for elementary school students, continue six-week programs for middle and high school, and host all programs in air-conditioned buildings.
David Stone, a city school board member who initially had reservations about the summer program when it was proposed last year, said he was pleased to hear the results, but still questioned their sustainability.
"I am very interested in how they translate into long-term payback," Stone said. "I do think it's wonderful that we have learned how to target our resources. I'm still concerned that we're not focusing our resources on every child."