Summer vacation is here. The frenzied, end-of-the-school-year celebrations have given way to 10 weeks of freedom.

For some kids, it's the freedom to explore, to travel, to learn in creative ways. For others, it means days upon days of free time.

Blythe Rinehart-Pimentel, an 11-year-old who lives in Oakland's Glenview neighborhood, has a full calendar: science camp, soccer camp, German camp, overnight camp, a family vacation on the beach.

Laura Hernandez, 13, a strong student who likes school, expects to spend most of her vacation at her East Oakland home -- inside, where it's safer.

"Honestly, I'm not looking forward to summer," she said before the break began. "You get bored and there's nothing to do."

What happens between today and the end of August matters, especially for poor children whose parents have little formal education. A long-term study of 800 Baltimore public school students found the socioeconomic achievement gap widened so consistently during the summer months that it appeared to account for two-thirds of the difference by the ninth grade.

During the school year, the children appeared to learn at the same rate, regardless of their family's economic status, said Karl Alexander, the Johns Hopkins researcher who followed the children as they progressed from first grade through high school.

Not so in the summertime.

At home and in their neighborhoods, poor and middle-class children tend to be exposed to very different learning environments -- all day, every day, Alexander said. The children he studied from economically better-off families were more likely to take swimming lessons, frequent the library, go to camp and vacation with their families during the summer months. Those experiences, combined with their parents' reading habits and vocabulary use, add up.

"All that comes together to move kids from better-off homes ahead and hold lower-income children behind," he said.

In other words, what a child does this summer can help to predict how well he learns to read, whether he stays in school, what courses he takes in high school and whether he goes to college.

"It's one of the key factors that decides success or failure, dropping out or going to college," said Tom Torlakson, California's superintendent of public instruction.

But even low-cost recreational programs cost hundreds of dollars per child for the summer. Six weeks at Sarah's Science, a highly regarded nature camp in Oakland, Berkeley and San Ramon, adds up to $1,890. Some programs offer scholarships to students who can't afford the fees, but advocates say parents are often unaware of such opportunities, and that transportation can also be a barrier.

In 2008, 59 percent of the Oakland public school children surveyed by the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore said they did not attend summer school or camp. About 43 percent reported that they took care of themselves most of the time during the summer -- and two-thirds of the students surveyed were in fourth or fifth grade.

Alexander's groundbreaking study, published four years ago in the American Sociological Review, has raised the profile of summer learning as a public policy issue. Last year, first lady Michelle Obama launched "Let's Read. Let's Move," an initiative to promote exercise, healthy eating and reading during the summer. State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, has sponsored legislation to loosen some of the restrictions facing local nonprofits that provide summer programs with public grants.

But for all the talk about the importance of summer opportunities, public agencies are spending less on them. About 65 percent of the California high school principals surveyed in 2010 by the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access reported they had cut summer school programs to balance their budgets.

San Jose Unified and other South Bay districts have eliminated all courses that aren't legally mandated. Mt. Diablo Unified in Contra Costa County cut its summer school programs so deeply that the school board lessened its high school graduation requirements. San Francisco schools managed to salvage credit-recovery courses for ninth-graders this year, but only after the city stepped in with the funding.

And despite concerns for the safety of teenagers who are drifting through the summer with nothing to do, cities across the nation are scaling back their summer jobs programs. Last year in Oakland, more than 1,200 youths between the ages of 14 and 21 went to work through the Mayor's Summer Jobs Program. This year, only 200 of the applicants will have that chance -- largely because of a sharp reduction in federal funding.

The Oakland school district, which last year enrolled about 8,000 students in its summer programs, has made some cuts. As the federal stimulus funds fell by the wayside this year, so did the district's algebra academies. The district once held a summer school for the city's brightest and most motivated students, but no more. Still, about 70 Oakland schools are hosting programs this year, said Jane O'Brien, who coordinates summer learning programs for the school district.

Some local organizations are doing their part. The West Oakland Alliance Foundation awarded scholarships to about 40 children from the predominately black and Latino area, mostly for weeklong camps.

"This is where the gap happens," said Adrian Henderson, a youth outreach coordinator who was involved in the effort. "White kids, Asian kids -- in the summertime, they're learning. Our kids, they just kick it. They're just playing games, staying out late in the streets. We're trying to make sure they stay active during the summer."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/KatyMurphy.

school's out

An occasional series about life in the summertime and its long-term effects on children's safety, health and educational success. We follow a number of kids in June, July and August.