Every fall, teachers know that before they start on new material, they'll have to play catch-up - and for students who were below grade level in June, making up for that time lost during the summer is even harder.
That's one reason why administrators at Running Brook Elementary School in Columbia started a four-week summer program this year for children who were working below grade level in reading and math.
The school has had a summer program for many years, said Principal Marion Miller, but this year, school district officials gave Running Brook more money to focus on reading and math for second-graders moving up to third grade.
"That's a MSPAP year; it's also a transition year," Miller said. "We picked kids who were working below grade level because we felt that with a little extra effort, we could have them up to grade level or beyond."
Sixteen children were in the third-grade summer program, which ended Friday. The money from the school district paid for four teachers, making class sizes low. The children came every day from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., worked on reading for an hour and a half, had a snack and worked on math for another hour and a half.
"There's very little wasted time," Miller said last week.
The reading segment was full of activities: Read-alouds. Word play. Guided reading. Independent reading. Writing. Phonics and vocabulary building. More independent reading. But it wasn't like school. The lessons and games switched every 15 minutes.
"And then there's a lot of activities, with arts and crafts and physical stuff," Miller said. "If we didn't keep moving with activities and keep it stimulating, we'd lose them."
The program was tailored to each child based on a battery of tests Running Brook teachers ran on the participants before school ended. The tests showed teachers where each child was weakest, so those areas could be targeted over the summer.
For example, on one recent morning, 7-year-old Tavon Young practiced his "sight words" - words that he should remember by sight, without sounding them out. His teacher, Beth Gargano, knew that Tavon finally had mastered "store" and "own" but was having trouble with words such as "below." He mistook it for "blue" and then for "blow."
Gargano put the word "below," written on a snippet of construction paper, in a plastic bag marked "practice." Tavon was to work on those and other words until he had them memorized.
"In reading, we target the specific things that are holding them back," Gargano said. "It's wonderful because we have so few children."
Stephanie Akoto, 8, said she'd rather be in a summer program such as Running Brook's than wasting the day playing on her computer at home. She's learned words such as "invasion" and "photographer" during the past four weeks, and she's proud.
"It's helping us read good and helping us know math," Stephanie said. "If we weren't here, we'll just go outside and play with our friends instead of learning."
And even though the summer program ended last week, program administrators want to make sure that no more time is lost in the next five weeks before school starts.
Each of the program participants received a workbook full of activities to do, complete with crayons, pencils, a ruler and a calculator. The children were instructed to do four activities a day. Children who return next year with the fat workbook completed will receive rewards. To ensure that parents participate in the workbook's completion, all the participants' parents were invited to a conference with the summer program's teachers.
Teachers say the program was a success and hope the Howard County school district will provide the funding and materials to do it again next year. Even with vacations and summer camps to compete with, an average of 15 students showed up every day for class. And most improved their reading skills.
"Even if they haven't accelerated, they've maintained. ... And then we're one more step up than we would've been if we didn't do any of this," Gargano said.