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No time to lose

Summer's fun, but kids tend to forget some of what they just learned in school. One program aims to close the gap.

At the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan, children attend the BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) Summer program, offering students help with reading and math skills, among others. At the Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan, children attend the BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) Summer program, offering students help with reading and math skills, among others. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Natalie Southwick
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2010

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"Nice work, buddy.’’

Teacher David Ramsey strolls around his first-floor classroom in the Kenny Elementary School in Dorchester, offering words of encouragement. The 14 students sprawled in their chairs raise their hands for help with a difficult math problem, fidget a bit, scratch out wrong answers. Their eyes wander toward the clock — only five minutes left until lunchtime. It’s a brutally hot July day, and school is in session.

Ramsey and his class of rising third-graders are part of the BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) Summer program, which aims to combat what educators refer to as “summer learning loss.’’ Every June, when students close their school books for vacation, they dive into a world of play time, video games, beach days, you name it — and they forget a portion of what they learned over the past year. It happens to every child, especially in math, but researchers say the stakes are highest for students from low-income communities, who may lack access to educational activities during the summer, and tend to fall further behind in literacy than their more affluent peers.

Programs like BELL, which focuses on Boston’s elementary- and middle-school students, are trying to narrow that gap. The six-week summer program, which is free to participants, offers a limited number of qualifying students a full day of learning, with three hours of literacy and math tutoring in the morning, enrichment activities like art, music, and theater in the afternoon, and field trips or guest speakers every Friday. Some of the students are already enrolled in BELL’s after-school program; others are recommended by principals or parents who feel a student is underperforming and needs extra support. “Higher-income families invest in resources and camps and summer learning opportunities, leaving low-income students even further behind,’’ said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time & Learning, which conducts research and supports initiatives to extend the public school calendar. “You have this double whammy because the kids who need the extra learning programs the most are the ones who aren’t in them.’’

Students typically lose two to three months’ worth of learning each summer — for higher-risk children, the loss is greater, according to Tiffany Cooper Gueye, CEO of BELL. A 2007 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that low-income students had fallen 2 1/2 years behind their more affluent peers in literacy by the time they reached fifth grade — 3 1/2 years by ninth grade. Two-thirds of that gap could be directly attributed to summer learning loss in elementary-school years, the researchers concluded.

“It’s like any other skill — if you don’t practice, you’re not going to progress,’’ said Gueye. “You just don’t take a break from something you want to be good at.’’

That idea is central to BELL’s programming, which expects participation and improvement from its students, known as scholars. The organization, founded 18 years ago in Boston, has since expanded to Springfield, and cities in five other states, including Detroit, Baltimore, and New York. Funded by a combination of federal grants, foundations, corporate sponsors, and individual donors, BELL annually serves more than 10,000 students. This summer, about 750 students are taking part in the Boston program.

“Our vision is for every kid to have access to summer learning,’’ Gueye said.

Gueye’s dedication comes from firsthand experience. Born and raised in Dorchester, she attended schools in Dover through the METCO busing program. By seventh grade, she says, she was already so far ahead of some of her friends at who were attending neighborhood schools that she was tutoring them.

“I thought it was incredibly unfair,’’ Gueye said. “I wasn’t any smarter than they were. Just because you grow up somewhere shouldn’t mean you don’t have those same opportunities.’’

Gueye responded to a newspaper advertisement for BELL during the summer after her sophomore year at Boston College, and became a teaching assistant for a class of third-graders. Now, 12 years — and a doctorate from Boston College in educational research — later, Gueye heads the BELL organization.

The program is drawing attention from as far away as the White House. In a speech on May 27 introducing the Social Innovation Fund, a $50 million federal program created to support effective nonprofits, first lady Michelle Obama mentioned BELL as an example of a successful nonprofit model for social reform.

Shamari Satchell is one of the thousands of students who have signed on for the scholars program. A bright, bubbly 10-year-old from Hyde Park, Shamari first enrolled in BELL three years ago with below-average reading skills. Though she wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of spending six weeks of her summer in class, the combination of friends and activities won her over.

Now entering her fourth year in the program, she says her reading skills have improved dramatically. She’s already plotting to skip 10th grade, and will begin writing her own book any day now.

One of Shamari’s former BELL teachers, Yeshi Gaskin, hopes to inspire similar enthusiasm in all of her students. Gaskin, 30, who teaches fourth grade at the Haley Elementary School in Roslindale during the school year, has been involved with BELL for five years, and sees both sides of the summer divide.

“Every September, I can tell who’s been doing what,’’ Gaskin said. “If a child has read, you can tell. Their skills are very sharp approaching a book or being able to articulate what they’ve read, versus children who spent the majority of their time not engaging in anything literacy-related.’’

That said, learning doesn’t only occur in a classroom, said Brenda McLaughlin, vice president for community initiatives at the National Summer Learning Association, which works with schools and organizations to increase summer learning opportunities. With many schools facing severe financial restrictions, McLaughlin thinks partnering with local organizations like BELL or national ones like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America is one way to provide enrichment programming.

“Forward-thinking school districts are already rethinking summer programs,’’ she said. “[Schools] can partner with organizations already offering these resources to serve kids in a way that looks and feels like something other than school.’’

Still, innovative teaching techniques and enrichment classes alone won’t stop summer learning loss, educators said. Parents must be involved in the academic lives of their children.

“The parent is the first teacher to their child,’’ said Gaskin. “It’s about trying to create a culture of learning at home, and fostering that as best as possible.’’

Shamari’s mother, Yvonne Satchell, encourages her daughter to participate in academic programs and activities, and talks to teachers about areas where she feels Shamari needs more support. Every night, Satchell checks to make sure Shamari has done her reading, whether it’s through entries in a reading log or by reading aloud to her 3-year-old brother.

“They’re your kids — you have to want the best for them, and it starts from home,’’ said Satchell. “I could never send her to school and just say, ‘Oh, that’s your teacher’s job.’ What kind of parent would I be?’’

Natalie Southwick can be reached at nsouthwick@globe.com

Correction: Because of incorrect information supplied to the Globe, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of students the BELL enrichment program serves annually. The correct number is more than 10,000.