Tisha Edwards

Interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards has said the district must emphasize to parents the importance of academic and social support for students. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun / June 19, 2013)

Baltimore school officials want to attract more highly effective teachers and raise awareness about attendance in summer school after the percentage of middle and high school students successfully completing academic programs plummeted last year.

The number of middle school students promoted to the next grade fell precipitously, according to data recently released by the school system, spurring questions about the effectiveness of the Building Educated Leaders for Life program.

Building Educated Leaders for Life, referred to by its acronym BELL, a national model that had previously posted encouraging results, runs the city's middle school summer program. In 2012, 79 percent of sixth-graders who participated in the five-week summer program moved up a grade; by contrast, 42 percent of sixth graders who participated last summer ended up advancing, a dip of 37 percentage points.

In eighth grade, the slide was smaller over the same period, with the number of students promoted to high school falling by about 8 percentage points.

School officials attributed the sharp declines to poor attendance, a challenge that has driven the district's achievement gap in recent years and is among the chief reason students are not advanced to the next grade level.

The school board reviewed results for all of the programs, which cost the district $6 million in 2013, and several members expressed concern about attendance and whether the district was getting the best return on its investment.

This year, the district asked the board for $5 million to run summer programs for 6,650 students from late June through Aug. 1.

Interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards told board members during the review that the district needed to emphasize to parents that the middle school summer program was not "camp." The school system also needed to work with BELL officials to ensure students were getting academic and social support, Edwards said.

"It is not effective," Edwards said of the existing situation. "There's work that we need to do if we're going to continue to make this option available to children. Where there are at-risk kids, there's more work to do."

BELL has operated in Baltimore's low-income communities since 2005, offering after-school programs and expanding to summer learning in 2007. The 20-year-old nonprofit also serves students in the District of Columbia, New York, California, Michigan and South Carolina. Its model has been recognized for deterring summer learning loss.

City school officials lauded the program — which offers a full-day regimen of literacy, math, science and enrichment programming — in 2012 after the number of students promoted after participating in the program surged.

In 2010, for example, 29 percent of the city's sixth-graders who attended a summer school program were promoted to the next grade. In 2012, that number rose to 83 percent.

BELL officials acknowledge an attendance crackdown was part of the reason for the drop in 2013.

In 2012, the program was more forgiving of absences because students had to take unreliable buses provided by the school system. Last year, they were given MTA passes and enforcement of the 95 percent attendance rate –– or one day absent, one day tardy — was more stringent.

Nadia Bryan Clarke, executive director of BELL's Baltimore program, said the program will work to provide students with incentives tailored to their interests to encourage them to attend 100 percent of their classes.

"Sometimes its heartbreaking to tell them we can't recommend them because of one day," Clarke said. "We can't change the criteria. And it shouldn't be easy, it's a promotion program. We want them to enjoy the summer, but we want them to understand you should not be here next summer."

Clarke said students' ability to successfully complete the program was also hindered because many participating were coming into the program further behind grade level than ever before.

"For some students, the gap was huge," Clarke said. "If you're a seventh-grader coming in on a fourth-grade level, it's not realistic that you're going to make up all of that gap."

BELL officials said its assessments show students still benefited from the program, gaining months' worth of skills they didn't have previously.

Clarke said BELL recommends students for promotion if they've fulfilled district-set criteria, but the school system makes the ultimate decision about whether a student should be promoted.