For the past three years, while their peers were sleeping in or on vacation, teenagers from across Baltimore have converged on Digital Harbor High School with a common goal: to challenge themselves.
The students, members of the Advanced Placement Summer Academy, took advantage of an opportunity they say gave them more than an edge in a few classes. For some, it molded their educational careers.
Now the three-year-old program is on the chopping block: City schools CEO Gregory Thornton has proposed eliminating it to save money. Thornton has defended the cut, saying students who are successful during the school year would rather have jobs than attend school in the summer.
But some of those students, as well as teachers and school board members, have formed a chorus of criticism against the cut. The board is scheduled to hold a work session Tuesday on Thornton's proposed budget.
Some board members see the plan to eliminate the academy — one of the least expensive and most highly attended of the city's summer offerings — as the latest move in a widely perceived trend. Parents and politicians have said the board is not supporting the district's highest-performing students.
"I don't think we do enough for advanced academics anyway, so it seems like the least we could do is the summer," school board member Cheryl Casciani said when school officials proposed the cut.
Students who have attended the academy said cutting it would be short-sighted.
"If they'd got more accounts from students, they would have immediately found the value in it," said Barellie Thompson, who attended the first year of the program as a junior at W.E.B. DuBois High School. Thompson is now a sophomore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a participant in its Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program.
The summer academy "felt much different from school," Thompson said. "It felt like a place that stimulated learning, because high school in Baltimore City is not difficult if you don't challenge yourself."
Students pointed out that the academy has also been a way to earn money because the mayor's jobs program, YouthWorks, has paid them a minimum-wage stipend to attend.
In addition to brushing up on the skills they need to pass classes such as AP Government and Language and Composition, academy students have also visited colleges including UMBC and the Johns Hopkins University.
Thompson said the visit to UMBC — where President Freeman Hrabowski has met with the academy students each summer — weighed heavily in his decision to apply there.
The AP academy is not the main focus of the district's summer offerings for high school students. Most high schoolers take summer school to make up credits, which will continue to be an option.
The academy was started in 2012 under then-schools CEO Andres Alonso amid a push to expose more high school students to the rigors of the AP courses.
But outside of schools such as Polytechnic Institute and City College — where AP courses are plentiful and students are encouraged to enroll — participation and results have been meager. In 2014, only 27 percent of Baltimore city students who took AP exams passed them.
Educators at both the high school and college levels say the city's AP summer program remains worthwhile.
Yvette Mozie-Ross, vice provost for enrollment management and planning at UMBC, said students who take AP courses are among the most competitive applicants to the university, and praised the summer opportunity.
"The AP academy attracts very highly motivated students, and certainly for us, gives us an opportunity to recruit well-prepared students," Mozie-Ross said. "Obviously, if they're committing their summers, these are the types of students we're interested in attracting to UMBC."
District officials said last week that they plan to restore at least some funding to the summer program, but they would not say whether that would include money for the AP academy, or how much.
The AP summer program cost the district $99,470 last year.
The district "recognizes the value of and actively supports summer learning," spokeswoman Edie House Foster said in a statement.
"Budget constraints in the upcoming fiscal year preclude the district's offering the broad range of programs that has been available in the past," she said. "However, the proposed … budget will include a re-appropriation of funds for summer programs. We are pursuing additional options that will enable us to provide opportunities for students at all levels of academic achievement, including AP Prep."
The AP academy is one of three summer programs Thornton has proposed eliminating. He would also cut an elementary school reading program and a middle school program.
Officials say budget restrictions, coupled with low attendance and poor academic results, are driving the cuts. Thornton has proposed that the district spend about $2.5 million less on summer school this year than it did in 2014.
Students say the fact that the AP academy was targeted in the first place underscores a lack of understanding about the kind of students who seek out the program.
"The misconception about AP students is that we take AP classes because we're smart," said Kendall Harnsberger, a junior at Digital Harbor High School.
"We take AP classes because we enjoy the rigor, and we want to feel more prepared walking into a classroom."
Allison Greco, a teacher at Patterson High School who taught AP Language and Composition at the summer academy last summer, said she's never seen students at different academic levels "so thirsty for knowledge and success."
"You have a group of kids who want to go to school during the summer when, during the school year, you can probably count on one hand how many of those kids are in your building," Greco said.
"All of these kids were there, ready and willing to do what it took," she said.
Students say the summer program was more engaging than their classes during school year.
Johnathan Burton, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School, said his attendance is spotty during the year.
But last summer, he said, "I didn't miss any days of the AP program because I was learning new stuff."
Amanda Hayek, an AP teacher at Digital Harbor High School who has coordinated the summer program since its inception, said it has grown from 60 students in 2012 to more than 200 last summer.
"These are the students who are doing the right thing all of the time, and they're largely self-motivated," Hayek said. "It's too easy to forget about them, and we really need not to."
Dante Daniels, a senior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, is one of those students who could have been forgotten by the district.
Daniels, who wants to work as an engineer, was worried when he wasn't accepted to Polytechnic his freshman year, because it was one of the few places he would have been guaranteed advanced courses.
"Every day I was faced with: How was I going to get that academic background I felt I needed for college?" Daniels said.
He wanted to take calculus his sophomore year and computer science his junior year. Neither was available at his high school. He took both courses during the AP summer academy at Digital Harbor.
But he also made an invaluable connection. He met Michael Thomas, the district's head of career and technology education. Thomas encouraged him to apply to the Naval Academy.
Daniels was accepted and plans to enroll this summer.
"The AP academy taught me that it doesn't matter where you start from," Daniels said. "It just matters the amount of effort you put in to get where you want to be."