Click photo to enlarge
Tam Nguyen,5, who will be in first grade in the fall, ponders the solution to a math problem July 9, 2008 posed by Thao Le, a Teaching Assistant who is a student at Independence High School, during Math Enrichment, an intensive 6-week math course held at Leland High School in San Jose. Nearly 1,500 students in kindergarten through high school have signed up for the program. About 750 students are enrolled in classes held at Leland High School. Math Enrichment also offers classes at Quimby Oaks Middle School. (Pauline Lubens/San Jose Mercury News)

They call it the "summer slide." As June slips into July and then the dog days of August, many of the math skills, history lessons and new vocabulary words that students acquired during the school year fade without the routine of daily classes.

Shanga Labossiere, 11, said that happened to him last year. After a long, idle summer, he said, he spent the first two weeks of the semester cramming for a test on material he had learned the previous spring.

This year, however, Shanga signed up for a new Oakland summer school program for gifted students. Shanga and 130 other kids from schools across the city conducted quirky science experiments, made ice cream from rock salt, built simple machines and brushed up on their math skills at Fruitvale Elementary School.

"I want to get prepared for middle school because I want to grow up to be a chemist," said Shanga, who will enter East Oakland's Bret Harte Middle School in the fall. "Right here, in this place, I'm catching up from what I lost in the summer. I'll be past caught up."

While other school districts in the Bay Area and statewide are cutting back on their summer offerings, Oakland added new enrichment courses this summer. Some 8,000 Oakland students took part in the free programs, held at 70 schools. Educators say the summer school expansion is part of an effort to bridge the achievement gap — the academic chasm that separates black and Latino students from their white and Asian peers — which widens over the summer.

Carin Geathers, principal of the gifted and talented program at Fruitvale, said it's vitally important for children to be involved in enrichment activities over the summer. When she was a teacher at Grass Valley Elementary School and taught the same group of students for two years in a row, she said it was glaringly obvious which students had participated in summer programs and which hadn't.

"I'd say, 'What happened?'" she said. When Geathers asked those students what they did over the summer, she said they would often tell her, "Well, I didn't do a whole lot."

That might have been because Oakland went years with few enrichment programs for its students. This summer, to name a few, there was a fine arts program at Glenview Elementary School, plus summer algebra academies for incoming eighth- and ninth-grade students, and "bridge" programs to prepare kids for the transition to high school.

"The kids are performing miracles," said Cleo Protopapas, who coordinated Oakland's new algebra academies. "This year we really worked hard to create the right curriculum and to train teachers how to teach differently."

Still, the spots for such programs are limited. Geathers said she could easily attract 300 students to the summer enrichment program but had space only for 130. And for low-income children, transportation is an issue as well. One family, she said, had to stop sending their child to school this summer because they couldn't afford the gas.

Meanwhile, students from more affluent and educated families string together a summer filled with camps, classes and family vacations.

"Summer is a time when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,'' said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "We think of summer as this time for camp and recreation and all kinds of fun programs, but it's a wasteland for many low-income children. There's no other time of year where inequality is greater then the summer, and it has a huge impact on the achievement gap.''

Research shows students lose ground — especially in verbal and reading skills — over summer months if they're not actively learning, joining organized activities or even visiting the library and checking out books.

"Over the summer, the low-income kids would tread water at best. They don't make progress, and some would actually slide backward,'' said Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins who began studying a group of 800 Baltimore City Public School System elementary students in 1982. "But students from more middle-class families, where parents were college-educated, would actually make gains."

Alexander found the summer slide had a cumulative and devastating, effect.

"We followed the same group of students year to year," Alexander said. "By the 9th grade, the low-income students were 31/2 grade levels behind their more advantaged peers."

Protopapas said the importance of summer algebra academies and other programs went beyond academics — especially in a city in which more than one-third of high school kids drop out of school.

"This isn't just about forgetting your math," Protopapas said. "It's about having nothing to do and getting into trouble." For incoming ninth-grade students, she said, "That summer is an important one."

Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com. MediaNews staff writer Dana Hull contributed to this story.