BALTIMORE — It is almost impossible to tell that Lamontae Smith and Justin Dutton, sitting side by side at summer school, both failed sixth-grade math this year.
“I have a 95 average,” said Justin, grinning and lifting his head up momentarily from a quiz on fractions.
“I have a 97 average,” responded Lamontae, with a hint of competitive pride. “If I get a 100 on this, I’m up to a 99.”
During the school year, neither boy had been able to maintain an average above 60.
“When I got here the work just got easier for me,” said Lamontae, 13. “They didn’t have the time to show me how to do things at my school. It makes me want to come to this school.”
But he also said he didn’t entirely blame his teachers at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. “I’m gonna be honest. I was talking. I got distracted a lot.”
Lamontae and Justin are two of about 475 students in Baltimore’s middle school summer program, which enrolls students who have been identified as having to stay back a year.
Researchers estimate that low-income students lose two months’ progress in reading and math every summer. That means they can fall more than a year behind before high school, even if they are keeping pace with their wealthier peers during the school year.
But in Baltimore’s middle school summer program last year, students gained three months in reading and two and a half in math, according to the nonprofit that ran it — all in the span of five weeks, with just 21 instructional days. Teachers in the program, who also teach in Baltimore City Public Schools during the year, say the secret is small classes, consistent discipline and taking time to show the students that they care.
“Summer is the most unequal time in America,” said Matthew Boulay, founder of the National Summer Learning Association. “The real problem is not what happens over one summer, but the cumulative loss of summer after summer after summer.”
Middle- and upper-income students tend to have less summer learning loss, researchers say, because they take advantage of summer camps and informal learning opportunities, such as family vacations and books in the home.
In Baltimore — where fewer than 15 percent of eighth-graders were reading or doing math at grade level last year, according to national tests — the overwhelming majority of students in the summer program are African-American and most are low-income.
Six years ago, Baltimore handed its entire middle school summer school program over to a nonprofit called BELL, which stands for Building Educated Leaders for Life.
BELL runs a tight ship. The day starts with breakfast and community time, followed by four hours of academics in which boys and girls are in separate classrooms to help them focus better. They have recess, an empowerment group session and a physical activity before dismissal at 3 p.m. Students also get bus tickets, to remove any transportation cost barriers. Fridays are devoted to field trips.
This year BELL raised enough private funds to cover about half of the program’s $800,000 price tag. That level of funding allows for 20 students per classroom, led by two adults — a certified teacher and a teaching assistant.
“Two sets of eyes and ears in the room, it’s a big difference,” said Clarence Davis Jr., who has been teaching in Baltimore for 10 years. “I’m in heaven right now.”
The additional adults also help to enforce a consistent set of expectations for behavior. Administrators say this process is particularly important in Baltimore, since the summer school site pulls from all around the city, which can result in students who belong to rival street gangs sitting next to each other.
“One of parents’ biggest concerns, their first question is, ‘Will my child be safe in your program?’ ” said John Holt III, the middle school program manager.
Administrators said they get lots of students who have been identified as “problems” — the ones “running the halls,” skipping class and getting suspended.
But this summer, many of those same students were in their seats and almost universally seemed to appreciate the relative calm in the classrooms.
“There were a lot of distractions in my old school, students playing or packing,” said Christopher Santiago, who failed eighth-grade math and English. “The teachers had to deal with them instead of the kids who wanted to learn.”
“They don’t have time for foolishness here. If you’re serious, they’ll help you,” added Christopher, 14. “I like the fact that bad behavior or good behavior, nothing goes unnoticed.”
The teachers use an app called ClassDojo to track both disruptive and positive behavior. The process starts with a warning and can escalate to expulsion — but positive behavior can also result in the removal of a warning, allowing a student to get back to a clean slate.
Talking during class can mean a warning or the loss of permission to wear a hat in class.
Standing up in front of the school and presenting your work can lead to a pick from the prize box, and classes compete to show the best behavior each week, with a pizza party as a reward. If students are having problems with other students, they can request mediations, which are run by a Baltimore public school veteran trained in restorative justice techniques.
“I call it no-nonsense nurturing,” said Tamara Stallworth, who has taught for five years in Baltimore. “It can be hit or miss during the school year. When there are no consequences to align with action, they just come back and do it again.”
Stallworth said she has had students in the summer who she taught during the school year, and the difference is striking. One sixth-grader slept through most of her classes during the year, but transformed during the summer, did well and was promoted. (Last year 84 percent of the students who attended the program were promoted.)
“I was so proud of him,” Stallworth said. “It’s good to be able to identify all the potential that they have, and sometimes it’s because we’re able to have more intimate time with them.”
That time not only occurs during class, but also in the afternoon empowerment sessions, called Dare to Be Kings/Dare to be Queens, where values such as respect and courage are discussed.
One session, led by Kimberly Patterson, a Baltimore native and public school teacher, focused on reports that some girls were having trouble with respect in one teacher’s class.
“That fat man disrespected me first,” declared one girl, after Patterson passed her the “talking stick.”
Patterson, 23, asked for the stick back.
“We need to have a conversation about names, because it seems to me that you all don’t think that using someone’s name is important, but that is a sign of respect,” she said.
“Well, I was smart with him,” said another girl, “but he snatched my pen and then keeps talking about how ‘that’s gonna get you sent home’ and I don’t need to hear that all day every day. So he was smart with me first.”
”He was smart with her,” agreed a classmate.
“How you all gonna be talking about how you was smart with him when that’s his pen and he’s the teacher?” challenged another girl.
“We need to take a step back,” said Patterson. “Let’s start with why you need to show him respect in the first place.”
The conversation moved away from the specific incidents and toward how the girls would like to be treated and how they had the power, through their own behavior, to gain someone’s respect.
Patterson said she enjoyed running the sessions: “In school there’s no additional time for you to show students that you want to know them as individuals, that you’re trying to understand them.”
Ashley Pettis, who was slated to repeat eighth grade for failing math, said she had a hard time during the school year because of tough relationships with her peers. There were a lot of fights in her school, she said. Some became physical and she got suspended, which made it harder to keep up in math.
“Here, the teachers are really there for you, if you have something personal going on,” said Pettis, 14, sitting in an English class focused on poetry. “And they are very good at controlling drama.”
She also said she liked that the academic and empowerment classes were segregated by gender, which she thought helped limit the drama.
When the English teacher leaned over her desk and read the poem she had written, he asked her to read it to the class.
She smiled, both proud and shy, and walked to the front of the room:
“Bullet holes become feet / stomping on grass like broken dreams / my young black men now lunch to the predator. / They say America is land of the free / But if your skin isn’t pale then you’re not free . . .”
Many students said it wasn’t just the freedom to write poetry or get involved in extracurricular activities that they enjoyed.
Corey Coleman failed sixth-grade math, although he said he didn’t find the work difficult.
“It wasn’t hard, we just didn’t have any math teacher,” said Corey, 12. “We had a substitute, but he barely showed up, so we just went to the gym.”
He said he liked coming to summer school.
“I like the academic stuff, the math class. It teaches us stuff that we didn’t never know,” said Corey, who otherwise would have spent the summer at home. “I’d rather be here, it’s just cooler.”
Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.