Baltimore City's summer school program began Tuesday

David Sloane, a teacher for the Wide Angle Youth Media class, poses for his students in the "scream" category of their photo scavenger hunt. Joe Soriero (Joe Soriero, Baltimore Sun / July 5, 2011)

In addition to swimming with Michael Phelps' instructors and battling with handmade robots, Baltimore summer school students will be building soapbox cars to help keep their minds revving until the next school year.

In a program that began Tuesday, 2,000 middle school students will participate in what the district has themed a "Grand Prix" of summer learning in anticipation of the world-class auto racing event coming to the city in early September.

It's the newest programming effort by the school system to join the nationwide campaign to combat summer learning loss and continue the district's emphasis on a summer science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

The soapbox program will be offered at 12 middle schools to advanced math and science students who will race the cars Aug. 5 at Lake Clifton Park. Teams of students will also use their math and science skills in constructing and racing remote-controlled cars.

Since last year, when Baltimore revamped its summer offerings, culminating with a citywide robotics championship, the program has been lauded nationally for its innovation. According to school officials, the program reduced summer learning loss for nearly 70 percent of its participating students.

Whether those students scored higher on state assessments has not yet been determined.

"We learned that we've got to make something so engaging, so compelling that this is the place to be," said Linda Eberhart, executive director of the school system's teaching and learning office. "You can't have a kid do math six hours a day unless they don't know they're doing it."

The city's summer program will run between four and five weeks for more than 15,000 elementary, middle and high school students. The focus continues to be on students in middle grades, who historically have struggled with math and science.

However, elementary school students will be able to participate in STEM projects involving cars at 22 sites throughout the city.

About 1,000 elementary school students will also participate in a reading program, funded by the Abell Foundation, which will enable students to choose a book and keep summer reading logs. It is part of a three-year research project being conducted by the organization to determine whether the program could boost reading and literacy skills systemwide.

The middle school summer program will continue its relationship with the Michael Phelps Swim School, which will offer swimming lessons at seven more sites this year. Middle school students will also continue to participate in enrichment programs, including learning math through rhythmic dance, poetry or sports. Advanced middle school students will be offered a chance to study a foreign language such as Chinese or Arabic.

A national summer learning expert called the city's program, "a comprehensive band of opportunities." Summer school teachers received weeks of professional development in order to lead the projects.

"I think what the school system has done in very short amount of time is completely rebrand their summer school program," said Ashley Stewart of the National Summer Learning Association. "It is this kind of thinking and envisioning that can really provide a harness for what powerful teaching and learning can look like."

The summer school program faced major budget cuts earlier in the year and will receive about $1.5 million less after the expiration of federal stimulus funding. Last year's program included perks such as paying high school students a $1,000 stipend if they held a summer job and reimbursing a $150 registration fee if they passed high school assessments.

But in the past week, after city students noted declines on the Maryland School Assessments — the largest drop in math — school officials have highlighted the need to support summer school, along with Saturday school.

Stewart hopes the program will continue to be supported.

"We could do so much more," he said, "if the community rallied around this thinking and innovation."

erica.green@baltsun.com