Hundreds of high-ranking, retired military officers have joined the chorus of summer school proponents, arguing that what children do in the summertime is a matter of national security.

A California-specific report released Thursday by the Mission: Readiness organization, led by retired generals and admirals, says the lack of summer programs has left too many kids on the couch, eating junk food, with a two-month vacation from learning. That, the group says, is contributing to food insecurity, childhood obesity and the school dropout rate, which are undermining the nation's economy and the strength of the armed forces.

"This perilous combination of academic losses and rapid weight gain during the summer months has become a concern for the military," the report says.

The report notes that more than 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Californians are overweight and that about one quarter of the state's public high school students don't graduate on time. Of the prospective enlistees who take the military's math and literacy exam after graduating from California high schools, 24 percent fail, the report says.

Founded in 2008, Mission: Readiness shares an umbrella organization with the public safety group, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. Similarly, it pushes for more spending on programs for young children and teenagers -- especially those from poor families. Its website lists hundreds of retired military officers as advisers, including Henry "Hugh" Shelton, a retired army general and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In its latest publication, "Lazy Days of Summer: A National Security Threat?" the group calls for expanded summer programs as well as at-home reading initiatives and greater parent involvement in their children's literacy and wellness. It cites a long-term study by a Johns Hopkins University researcher who found that, by the ninth grade, two-thirds of the test score disparities between low-income children and their middle-income peers could be traced back to the summer months.

Another study referenced in the report, by Ohio State University researchers, found that children gained weight three times as fast in the summer months as they did during the school year.

"It's a national security issue, whether or not they join the military, because if they don't have a high school diploma, they're going to be underemployed for the rest of their lives, and if they're not physically fit, they're going to be a drain on the economy," said Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe (retired), a Berkeley resident whose wife is a retired school principal.

Monroe said he believes the federal government, including the Department of Defense, should take a hard look at its spending and redirect some of the funds to initiatives that benefit children. He doubts, for example, that each branch of the military needs its own air force.

"The Department of Defense needs to look at its programs and get rid of those that aren't supporting what the national strategy is," he said.

The federal government does provide funds specifically for the summertime. In fact, it's the only dedicated funding source left in California for that purpose. The feds provided roughly $34 million in 2011, according to Mission: Readiness. Still, the demand for the money far exceeds the supply.

This year, more than 1,000 California elementary and middle schools applied for a new summer grant, and 900 were turned away. Only a handful of school districts in the Bay Area were among the chosen few to receive them: Gilroy Unified, New Haven Unified in Union City, West Contra Costa Unified in Richmond and San Francisco Unified, according to data from the California Department of Education provided by the Partnership for Children and Youth.

The demand for federal and private grant funding for summer programs has soared since 2009. That year, California lawmakers lifted funding restrictions on a host of special-purpose grants, including a pot of money for summer schools. Now, that money can be used for any purpose, and many districts have used it to cover school-year expenses instead. As traditional summer schools in California dwindle in number, so does participation in subsidized meal programs. Statewide, just 16 percent of eligible children take advantage of those meals year-round, compared to 84 percent during the school year.

Despite such challenges, Oakland schools have managed to offer summer programs at dozens of schools, using private grants and federal funding for low-income children, known as Title I. While most California schools use that money exclusively during the school year, many Oakland schools use a portion of it for the summer.

San Jose's Evergreen school district has taken a similar approach. At six of the district's high-poverty schools, principals have set aside some of those federal funds to pay for a three-week summer academy. Now in its second year, the program serves about 200 students from different schools who are about to enter grades 4 to 7, said Maureen McClintock, principal of the academy. Some students are learning about skyscrapers; others are building a model city with Popsicle sticks, sugar cubes and glue -- all while learning about teamwork, persuasive writing and presentation skills.

"These are kids who need a boost in language arts or math, kids who don't necessarily do well sitting and listening all the time," McClintock said.

One of the projects sounds like it's ripped from the pages of the Mission: Readiness report: The children are figuring out how best to promote health and fitness at home and in school. They're using pedometers to count the number of steps they take each day, and they recently went -- on foot, of course -- to the local farmer's market, where they sampled and photographed fruits and vegetables.

This educational style is anything but sedentary -- for the teachers, as well as the students. "I can tell you, at the end of the day, these teachers are wiped out because it's so active," McClintock said.

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

Percent of high-poverty, bAY aREA schools with FEDERAL SUMMER PROGRAM FUNDING in 2011

county no. schools percent
ALAMEDA 24 19
CONTRA COSTA 26 37
MARIN 6 55
SAN FRANCISCO 39 47
SAN JOAQUIN 16 15
SAN MATEO 13 28
SANTA CLARA 13 10
SOLANO 8 27

Source: Mission: Readiness

Find the full report at missionreadiness.org