BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Summer was once a time to head to the fishing hole, the beach or the ballfield. It was a time for anything but reading, writing and arithmetic.
Now, especially in urban school districts like Salem, summer is becoming a time for special programs and enrichment efforts targeting children with special needs, limited English or students from low-income families.
This summer, more than 700 Salem children will attend some form of summer school.
Offerings include a science program at Bentley Elementary School for at-risk students that is run with Salem State University and a literacy academy aboard the tall ship Friendship for largely Spanish-speaking children learning English.
The city has budgeted $325,000 for a pilot program for 240 elementary school children. The target group is children in grades three through five. Although plans are not final, they are looking at programs in the arts and sciences that will be a more hands-on and active learning experience.
While the pilot summer school will focus on children with the greatest needs, Superintendent Stephen Russell said he hopes to reserve about one-third of the seats for any child, with the names likely to be drawn by lottery.
Next year, the Salem schools hope to offer an even-wider range of summer programs.
The summer push is part of an effort by the Salem Public Schools to extend the school year and reduce the “learning loss” that many children experience over the two-month break, a loss that only grows as the years pass. It is also aimed at strengthening a struggling school system under state pressure to improve MCAS scores.
“This movement is coming from research,” Superintendent Stephen Russell said. “Those groups of highest-need kids have been found to suffer the most from summer learning loss.”
Studies show, for example, that children from low-income families who are not in a structured learning environment over the summer can lose two months of reading and math skills, officials said.
That degree of regression means teachers have to spend the first few months of the new school year reteaching what was taught the previous year. Over time, children fall further and further behind.
That is an issue everywhere, but especially in Salem, where more than half the public schoolchildren are from low-income families, where one school was given Level 4 “underperforming” status by the state, and where other schools are trying to raise scores on the statewide MCAS exams.
“Despite evidence of some progress, we are still not bringing our kids to the achievement level I think most people think they are capable of,” the superintendent said.
Tomorrow night, the Salem Public Schools Summer Program Committee will hold its first meeting at Collins Middle School. This task force has been charged with exploring summer programs, including ways to fund them.
“This cannot be sustained by taxpayer dollars alone,” the superintendent said. Grants, corporate sponsorships and sliding fees are all being considered.
On Saturday, a Salem Summer Programs Expo for parents will take place under a large tent behind the Community Health Center on Congress Street.
School officials will be there along with representatives from a number of community organizations that offer summer programs.
While acknowledging that initial summer school efforts are aimed at “high-risk” students, Russell said he hopes, in time, to create offerings for all students.
“When I started, my focus was on all kids and that is still my focus,” he said. “For this to be sustained, it has to be as much enrichment as remediation. ... It’s summer, after all. I’m hoping there can be some kind of balance between having new experiences and the learning that goes with that, and just having some fun.”
This expanded summer program, while stirring excitement, is coming at a cost.
The School Committee is expected to end the extended-year program at Saltonstall, a K-8 school, by the summer of 2014. While praising the efforts of teachers and parents at the “break-the-mold” school that runs through July, school board members said they can’t justify the extra expense — estimated at $100,000 — at a school with a relatively low number of low-income students and MCAS scores that aren’t significantly better than other schools.
Any extra funds for summer programs, they said, should benefit all students.
A decision on Saltonstall is expected in a few weeks.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.
If you go What: Salem Summer Programs Expo. Information and some early registrations for more than 20 summer programs offered by the schools, city and community. When: Saturday, May 4, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Where: Tent behind Community Health Center, 47 Congress St. Questions: Contact Patricia Zaido at firstname.lastname@example.org.