The throng of first-graders that snake their way to the computer lab at Martin Luther King Elementary don’t realize how lucky they are to take part in summer classes for under performing students. Soon, the summer class students will be practicing arithmetic skills using a game called Soccer Math that cleverly disguises learning in a fun game atmosphere. Math presents students with math problems and several answers to choose from. For every correct choice, the students get to kick the ball and attempt to score a goal.

George Iglesias, 6, has all his fingers at play: first he uses them as a counting aid, then to type.

“Yes,” he cries out softly every time he kicks the ball pass the goalkeeper.

Although he doesn’t know it, George is a lucky boy. He’s one of only a few hundred in the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District who gets to participate in summer classes, perhaps avoiding a much discussed dilemma now facing public education in the United States.

Experts call it “summer learning loss” the educational black hole that sucks educational gains out of children in these lazy days of too much TV and video games. The summer months can set the students back in their learning process two or more months, and in many instances, the effects will last for a lifetime.

Summer learning loss “contributes to a stubborn and long-lasting achievement gap” said Catherine Agustine, senior policy researcher with the RAND corporation in a conference call with the Education Writers Association. “Students are farther behind (when they return) than when they left off in the spring. … low-income students come to school behind in reading comprehension and other aspects of literacy. This loss is cumulative over time, when we look at achievement gap we see summer slide adds substantially to that gap.”

Summer school used to be more the norm than the exception in California schools before finances went south and pushed districts to cut spending.

“This is a major concern,” said Nancy Kotowski, superintendent of Monterey County schools. “There’s a summer learning loss and summer learning gain for those who have opportunities. It’s a gap that occurs — loss for some, gain for some — when they come back to school, the gap broadens.”

These days, the classes that remain are aimed primarily at struggling students, children who are already behind and need to catch up.

But Gary Huggings, chief executive officer with the National Summer Learning Association, called these approaches to summer school as “Band-Aids” that don’t address the needs of students who are already behind.

“We need a new vision for summer school,” he said during the phone conference. “The remedial model is insufficient.”

Summer Matters, a statewide campaign focused on developing access to summer programs, was launched in 2008 just as the economic downturn hit California and summer school was one of the first things to go. What the campaign offers is ideas for partnerships and programs that can be developed for struggling districts.

But what districts really need is money.

“It’s difficult to find funding and (quality programs) are not cheap,” Agustine said. “It’s difficult to plan when school’s in session, it’s hard to attract motivated teachers, find curriculum.”

With the dearth of school-sponsored summer programs, the Boys & Girls Clubs n Seaside and Salinas have seen an upswell in the number of children coming through their doors.

“Within weeks of opening up summer program enrollment, a waiting list was already filling up,” said Mary Ruberry, vice president of development and marketing with the clubs.

Seaside resident Flor Lara has noticed her children, ages 11, 6 and 4, forget what they’ve learned in the school year during the summer, so she tries to make them read at least half an hour a day during those months.

“I tell them it’s for their own good,” Lara said in Spanish. But she’s also noticed her neighbors don’t make their children read and allow them to watch TV and play video games all day.

“They say they’re on vacation, that vacation time is to rest,” she said.

As a stay-at-home mom, Lara also has time to take her children swimming and to the park. But for two parents working outside the home, the options may be more limited.

The Recreation Department of Monterey runs a few summer programs, many of which run at capacity. In particular, the “playground” program at Casanova and Hilltop parks, which run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for seven weeks, has long waiting lists.

The camps are not necessarily about learning math, said Recreation Supervisor Shannon Leon. But children may still learn about science through nature walks and being outdoors, she said.

But these types of enrichment activities are not available in every city.

Some school districts are finding creative ways to offer summer programs and other enrichment activities. At MPUSD, officials partnered with Monterey Peninsula College and Community of Caring Monterey Peninsula to bring Seaside fourth-graders to MPC. The event Friday brought about 80 students to the MPC campus so they could learn what’s like to be in college and begin planning for their future.

College tours, outdoor sports, and vacations are the types of activities that also decline during the summer for low-income children.

This year, the summer programs at MPUSD are being partially financed with the remaining federal School Improvement Grant, which ended this year. At King, 340 students are enrolled and attendance hovers at around 325, principal Taffra Purnsley said.

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