Boston schools revamp programs to tackle summer learning slide

Boston school officials, in an attempt to boost attendance and achievement in summer programs, will be moving toward a hands-on project approach that will take more students outside, under an initiative to be unveiled Wednesday.

The overhaul aims to address a divide that school leaders have spotted among the city’s summer programs: Those that intertwine lessons in math, reading, and science with sailing, salsa dancing, and other enrichment experiences tend to record higher attendance and larger academic gains than traditional programs, which at times can feel like a harsh summer punishment.

“We have completely reenvisioned how we do summer school,” Superintendent Tommy Chang said in an interview. “So the traditional summer school — we have very little of that.”


The new approach also aims to provide low-income Boston students with summer activities that are a staple for many middle-class families.

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The initiative will target 2,200 students who are lagging behind in their classes. They will take part in one of the five-week programs being offered at 31 sites, costing the school system $1.4 million. The nonprofit Boston After School & Beyond is contributing an additional $700,000. The programs are voluntary.

Beyond this effort, another 10,000 Boston students are expected to enroll in a network of 110 summer programs that also strive to blend academics with meaningful activities. Aside from lessons in math, English, history, and science, the programs attempt to teach students about social relationships, communication, and teamwork.

Chang and Mayor Martin J. Walsh will make the announcement at the Harvard-Kent Elementary School in Charlestown, which takes part in one of the model programs. Each summer, dozens of students from the school enroll in Courageous Sailing, a program that mixes classes on marine biology and the environment with sailing lessons.

Like many systems, Boston is attempting to tackle the much-talked-about summer learning slide, the two-month break from schooling that can cause students to forget critical knowledge by the time they return to classes in the fall.


The problem is particularly acute for urban systems that serve large numbers of low-income students. A growing number of studies have found the gaps in knowledge between affluent and less affluent students can widen during the summer because many low-income families cannot afford the same kind of enrichment activities, tutoring, or other experiences that middle-class families can.

For instance, a 2007 study led by Karl Alexander from Johns Hopkins University, which traced the academic performance of hundreds of Baltimore students, found that by the ninth grade more than half of the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers was due to the vast differences in summer experiences that each group had since the first grade.

“The cumulating effect over time is devastating,” said Matthew Boulay, founder of the National Summer Learning Association, a national nonprofit based in Baltimore. “Our poorest students experience the biggest losses in mathematics and reading” over the summer.

Chang has dubbed Boston’s summer-school revamp the “5th Quarter of Learning,” a nod to the belief that most students need to build upon or reinforce the knowledge they gained during the four academic quarters in the regular school year.

The initiative will also include the creation of special ninth-grade academies this summer at several high schools for a select group of incoming freshmen at those schools.


The summer programs that will remain more traditional in nature will largely serve 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders who are making up courses they failed. Those programs, as in years before, will be taught online under an approach called “credit recovery.”

‘We have completely reenvisioned how we do summer school. So the traditional summer school — we have very little of that.’

Walsh called the overhaul of summer programs “a groundbreaking effort.”

“A student’s education shouldn’t stop at the end of the school year when the fourth quarter of learning closes,” Walsh said in a statement.

Boston has been at the forefront in re-imagining the summer school experience. Since 2010, Boston and four other urban systems have partnered with the Wallace Foundation to create programs that integrate academic lessons with enrichment.

A study of the programs conducted by the Rand Corp. found that students who attended at least 20 days of summer school gained an academic edge over their peers who didn’t enroll that lasted well into the school year, according to results released last year.

For instance, between 20 and 25 percent of the academic gains made during the school year could be attributed to the summer programs among those students who took part for two consecutive years, according to the study.

The results have caught the attention of state Representative Alice Peisch, cochair of the Joint Education Committee, and other legislators, who are now pushing a bill that calls for creating a state grant program to replicate Boston’s integrated approach in other urban systems across the state.

“We are at the point where this is cutting-edge education and public policy,” said Chris Smith, executive director of Boston After School & Beyond.

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.