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Effort to keep students on pace in summer is expanded

City targets gaps that often plague poorer students

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / April 29, 2011

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A program aimed at keeping students from falling behind during the hot, leisurely months of summer is expanding this year to include 1,500 fourth- to 12th-graders in some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods.

The expansion at the Summer Learning Initiative reflects a stepped-up effort by the city and the school department to close the “academic and opportunity’’ gaps that often stymie poor students in urban areas. Mayor Thomas M. Menino is expected to announce the expanded program today at a conference in Cambridge.

Launched last year with 232 students, the initiative targets Boston’s “Circle of Promise,’’ a specially designated area with the highest rate of poverty and the poorest school performance record.

While most students each summer tend to forget some of what they learned during the school year, program officials say the problem is more troubling for poorer students. Urban students, they say, often lose precious months of learning if they are not academically engaged in the summer.

“One of the biggest gaps that we see with urban young people and their suburban partners is the amount of education that is lost during the summertime,’’ said Kristin McSwain, who runs the Boston Opportunity Agenda, which is funding the summer initiative. “What the research tells us is that by the fifth grade, [they would have lost] as much as two years.’’

Jeffrey Riley, an academic superintendent at the Boston School Department, said the city wants to create more opportunities that students need to put them on a path for long-term success.

“At the end of the day, we are trying to provide our kids with a comparable experience as suburban kids, and hopefully, we will have similar outcomes,’’ Riley said.

Chris Smith, who runs the initiative with the school department, said that although Boston offers hundreds of educational and sports programs every year, students in parts of the city are often idle when school closes in June.

“The camp experience is a great experience for kids,’’ said Smith, who heads Boston After School & Beyond, which also builds development skills among students. “But we are focusing on a set of kids and a set of schools that have a greater need for intensive intervention.’’

The Summer Learning Initiative was launched by the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a partnership begun last year by the City of Boston, the School Department and a host of charities, foundations and donors, including the Boston Foundation. Seeking to create better opportunities for Boston’s Children and adults, the Opportunity Agenda has made a $27 million commitment to the development of an education pipeline that guides students from early education through high school, college and other adult learning.

Last year, students from five schools participated; this year, 30 schools will take part, said Smith. This summer’s initiative will include 600 students entering the fourth and fifth grades; 800 soon-to-be seventh and eighth-graders; and 80 10th and 12th graders.

The School Department is also increasing its summer school rolls this year from 2,000 to 2,500.

According to Smith, the summer initiative focuses on activities that pique students’ interests while teaching them two major subjects they often struggle in — reading and math.

Last year, for instance, a group of students took a summer expedition to Thompson’s Island, where they collected, sorted and recorded insects that lived there. Another group of students spent time at Northeastern University getting a taste of life on a big-city campus.

And at Sociadad Latina in Roxbury, students cooked meals in the kitchen, using teamwork and concepts learned from math class. They also gained entrepreneurial skills on such heady topics as marketing analysis, targeting potential customers, and product development, Smith said.

Program officials said students were tested before and after the summer initiative, and overall, they showed improvements in reading and math.

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.