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It’s technically summer vacation, but about 6,000 kids from Baltimore City Public Schools will spend at least a portion of their break in a school building. And more than a third of them are getting their summer doses of math and literacy instruction by way of the arts.

Around the country, most elementary school students’ math and reading ability stops progressing over the summer, and kids from low-income families are particularly at risk of slipping backwards. While students of all socioeconomic classes tend to learn at about the same pace during the school year, the impact of summer learning loss is cumulative, and low-income kids can be as many as three years behind their peers by fifth grade.

Baltimore is combating that trend. Its Summer Arts and Learning Academy, for elementary schoolers from high-poverty schools, has been particularly effective at minimizing summer learning loss, as measured by reading and math assessments in the spring and fall from one school year to the next. The academy is run by Young Audiences, a Baltimore nonprofit dedicated to arts-based education. And students seem to love it.

Related: Baltimore summer school does the seemingly impossible – the kids actually want to be there

Armed with program evaluation data, Baltimore City Public Schools has expanded the academy from one to eight sites over the last four years. It now serves about 2,200 kids, who spend their days learning a wide range of art forms from professional teaching artists, while also keeping their math and reading skills sharp.

“We’re never going to close the achievement gap unless we deal forthrightly with summer learning loss.”

“They don’t even realize we’re doing math and literacy instruction because we’re having so much fun,” said Lara Ohanian, director of differentiated learning at the district.

Having fun is important for programs like this. They aren’t like traditional summer school, designed for kids who failed classes during the regular school year and need a chance to catch up. They’re more like summer camp, but held in public schools.

Libraries, city parks and nonprofits like the YMCA are other common sites of summer learning programs. They’re most common in cities, which have a higher concentration of nonprofits and foundations willing to host and fund them. But the consequences of summer learning loss are ubiquitous and students nationwide are at risk.

Matthew Boulay, CEO and founder of the National Summer Learning Association, has spent the last 25 years trying to convince people to pay attention.

“We’re never going to close the achievement gap unless we deal forthrightly with summer learning loss,” he said.

Summertime, Boulay said, can also offer an important opportunity for schools and educational providers to innovate. Without the constraints of the traditional school day, kids can have more hands-on learning experiences, they can tackle academics through the arts, or they can dive into new areas like robotics or acrobatics.

The Summer Arts and Learning Academy in Baltimore introduces students to spoken word, percussion, drama, dance, illustration and more, and it gives kids a chance to engage with local artists in a way that Ohanian said isn’t possible during the school year.

And it gives students five weeks in July and August to be excited about learning. That’s important, Ohanian said, for the return to school in the fall.

“They’re going to hit the ground running,” she said.

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