Photo via Young Audiences of Maryland

On June 13, students across Baltimore City will exit school to enjoy the warm weather and some restored weekday freedom. About a month later, city schools and local nonprofit Young Audiences will bring more than 1,000 of them back to brush up on their reading and math skills.

It may sound punitive or remedial, but the arrangement isn’t your ordinary take on summer school.

“All students tend to lose a little bit over the summer because they’re on break and not in school,” explained Stacie Evans, executive director of Remington-based arts education nonprofit Young Audiences of Maryland.

But research shows gains made during the school year erode more each summer for students living in poverty compared to their middle- and upper-income peers, she said. The result is an ever-widening achievement gap between students of different economic backgrounds.

Young Audiences’ Summer Arts Academy seeks to mitigate those losses for disadvantaged students. Partnering with Baltimore City Public Schools, the nonprofit has crafted a five-week summer program for students at Title I schools that infuses regular lessons with creative elements co-planned by trained teachers and teaching artists.

Title I schools are those that meet a certain poverty threshold in order to receive federal funding. In Baltimore, schools with a certain share of students on free or reduced lunch receive the designation.

This summer, about 1,100 students will spend their weekdays from July 10 through Aug. 11 in the academy at Gardenville and James Mosher elementary schools and Thomas Jefferson and Coldstream Park elementary/middle schools. This will be the third year for the program.

The key component, Evans said, is the creativity that teacher-artist duos bring to their lessons.

“Kids are getting the opportunity to put their own voice into whatever work they’re doing,” she said. “That creates meaning to them. That meaning, that engagement coupled with making whatever they’re doing, is what gets it to stick.”

Each day starts at 8:30 a.m. with “crew” time, when students warm up in small groups with their peers, followed by 90-minute sessions in reading and writing. The rest is split between outdoor time, with games organized by the nonprofit PlayWorks, and arts activities. The program finishes at 3 p.m.

Last year, spoken-word artist and emcee Jamal “Black Root” Collier led students in reading comprehension exercises by having them read from books and “summarize and synthesize” the details through rap, Evans said. In math lessons, teacher-artist teams used drum beats to explain fractions and mixed in improv activities to demonstrate skip counting.

Kevin Older, a teacher at the Mount Washington School, taught a group of 19 kindergarteners, co-planning lessons with local artist Ras Tre to demonstrate visual concepts like bird’s eye view using graphic novels.

Research based on standardized test scores from last year shows the effort is paying off. In a sample of third-through-fifth graders who regularly attended the Summer Arts Academy (defined as showing up at least 75 percent of the time), math score rankings improved by 1.8 percentile points between spring and fall. Score rankings for city schools students without any summer learning activities fell 2.8 percentile points, by comparison.

In reading comprehension, score rankings for the same age group in the academy fell 0.8 percentile points, compared to a 2.1-point drop for city schools students who didn’t participate in any summer programming.

The results were enough to convince city schools and Young Audiences to expand the number of students served by 38 percent this summer.

Photo via Young Audiences of Maryland

“Too many summer programs feel punitive or remedial,” said Matthew Boulay, a Marine-turned-educator with a doctorate in sociology and education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. In Young Audiences’ program, he said, “because you’re away from the demands of accountability systems and the structure of schooling, you can really be innovative.”

Boulay founded the Teach Baltimore initiative in 1992 while studying for his bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins University. It grew to become the National Summer Learning Association, an Otterbein-based nonprofit that advocates for closing the national achievement gap with summer education programs.

“All kids learn during the school year – and by all kids, that certainly includes low-income kids. And then they either stagnate or, even worse, fall back during the summer months,” he explained. “The real negative is that it is cumulative. That loss occurs summer after summer after summer, particularly for low-income kids.”

The program benefits teachers, too. Older, of the Mount Washington School, said that he found that “no matter what age group you’re with, a lot of it is about consistency and just enjoyment. When you’re working with the teaching artists, and you have a good rapport, and you guys are enjoying it, the kids start to enjoy it as well.”

Evans said operating the academy costs roughly $1,100 per student. Most of that money comes from Title I dollars, she said, with about 10 percent coming from Young Audiences’ fundraising efforts. (Because the program relies on those federal funds, only students in Title I schools can enroll.)

A 2011 RAND Corporation study found five-week summer learning programs in urban areas can cost anywhere between roughly $1,100 and $2,800 per student, depending on variables like food, transportation and facilities.

“If we can basically do this at or below what the national costs suggest, and we can get better-than-average results [compared to national scores], I think it’s a no-brainer,” Evans said.

Photo via Young Audiences of Maryland

With the right resources and staff, Young Audiences would expand the academy to reach more students. One of the biggest obstacles is finding qualified teaching artists. Even in a city like Baltimore with an abundance of talented creatives, Evans said it’s difficult to find ones who can merge their artistic prowess with a teaching methodology, co-plan a lesson and manage a classroom.

The nonprofit maintains a training program called the Teaching Artist Institute, developed in partnership with the Maryland State Arts Council and the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance, to prepare working artists for the classroom.

“We need even more,” Evans said of the supply of teaching artists. “We want to expand, but we need to train more artists to get them to be able to implement the model with fidelity.”

Baltimoreans can see what the Summer Arts Academy pupils are working on this summer. Students will journey from outside the classroom to exhibit their work at Artscape and pop-up shows around the city.

The academy is still accepting applications for this summer. As of June 1, less than 100 of 1,100 spots remained for students, Evans said.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...