Click photo to enlarge
Laura Hernandez Morales,13, right, watches her mother Marta Hernandez fix her sister's, Marta Hernandez Morales, 5, hair at their home in East Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011. Laura spends her summer days at home helping around the home, running errands with family, or texting friends. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

If the mind is like a muscle, Blythe Rinehart-Pimentel's brain has been lifting weights this summer. Laura Hernandez's is resting between sets.

Both identified as gifted students, Blythe, 11, and Laura, 13, have parents who want to see them realize their dreams of attending a top university and becoming scientists.

But unlike Blythe, whose parents were able to finance a full summer of activities, Laura mostly stayed at home, with little to do. She didn't test the density of carbon dioxide or the flammability of hydrochloric acid. She didn't keep a journal about her visit to the Freedom Trail in Boston. She knows that when she goes back to school at the end of the month, she will have forgotten things she knew in May.

Each summer, some children have the chance to explore their interests and keep their minds sharp, while others do not. The cost of top-notch programs can be a stretch, even for families with means. And as districts cut back on summer school, children from poor families are even less likely to experience those learning opportunities -- though they may need them the most.

Free time

Blythe has some free time to play with other kids in her Oakland foothills neighborhood (and sleep in the treehouse next door) -- but not much. Her carefully crafted summer schedule included a family trip to Boston, German camp, a chemistry lab course, soccer camp, sleep-away Girl Scout camp and, as always, a week with her parents on a quiet California beach, unwinding before she goes back to school.

"I actually learn quite a bit during summer," she said. "I think I learn just about as much as I learn in school sometimes."

Laura, on the other hand, does not look forward to her summer vacation. She lives with her parents and younger sister in an East Oakland apartment with bunk beds in the living room. Last week, people outside her building were complaining about drug dealing and prostitution in an adjacent lot.

It's too dangerous to go outside alone, Laura said, so she usually stays inside. "So I wake up late," she said. "Sometimes I eat. Sometimes I clean, and sometimes I just lay there. It's pretty boring."

On some afternoons Laura runs errands with her dad, who's out of work, and her mom, who cleans the buildings at Chabot College in Hayward while most people are sleeping. She also passed the time by texting her friends and reading the first three books in the "Twilight" series. Her boredom was temporarily relieved by a session for incoming freshmen that was held for two hours each morning at her new high school.

Some youths do not even do that much. A fall 2009 telephone survey by the public opinion research firm Public Agenda found that 30 percent of California parents did not enroll their children in any summer program that year; of those who earned less than $35,000, 48 percent did not. Nearly half of parents who kept their children at home in the summer said they couldn't afford the program they were interested in.

A typical middle-class child with college-educated parents doesn't need structured academic programs in the summer to keep up in school; her or she is likely to visit museums, go to the library, take trips and be exposed to academic vocabulary at home, experts say. It's different for children from families that are less well-off, and those who speak another language at home, as Laura's does.

Karl Alexander, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, tracked the academic progress of hundreds of Baltimore children for 12 years. He found that poor children and their middle-class peers learned at about the same rate during the school year. The summer was what drove the two groups apart. By the time the students were in ninth grade, he said, it appeared to account for two-thirds of the disparity.

A daunting task

An intellectually stimulating summer experience is not out of Laura's reach. Some highly regarded programs are free or offer scholarships. However, there's no clearinghouse for such information. Families must discover such opportunities exist, find the right ones for their children, then manage to secure a spot.

"It's hard to figure out," said Blythe's mother, Debora Rinehart, who found scholarships for her daughter after losing her job as a credit union executive two years ago.

Applying to college is nothing compared to the admissions process at UC Berkeley's prestigious Academic Talent Development Program, which Blythe has attended for five years. Applicants, even in the elementary division, must send grades, standardized test scores, an essay, and teacher recommendations; a behavior inventory asks teachers whether the child "expresses a keen sense of humor" or if he "takes a systemic approach" to tasks.

Still, more than 2,000 Bay Area children in grades K-12 manage to clear those hurdles each year. It's no wonder; the place is a learning utopia. At the elementary division, held at Washington Elementary in Point Richmond, kindergartners were learning about tide pools and singing "Scurry, scurry hermit crabs" to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Second-graders, learning about the rain forest, were making monkeys and fruits out of clay for a canopy stretched across the classroom, and vines from twisted paper grocery bags.

The program isn't free, but it offers need-based tuition waivers. Its director, UC Berkeley Education Professor Nina Hersch Gabelko, said about one-quarter of the young scholars come from poor families. The experience can have a powerful effect on their lives, she said.

"They get to find out who they are, vis a vis their intellectual peers," she said.

Parents' sacrifices

Last month, Blythe and her fifth-grade chemistry classmates clustered in pairs around stations stocked with chemicals, beakers and test tubes. They followed written procedures and jotted down their observations.

"Do you think that reaction was endothermic or exothermic?" Gene Csider, who teaches AP Chemistry at San Ramon Valley High School, later asked the class.

Rinehart said her daughter, who announced in preschool that she wanted to be a scientist, was learning more science in three weeks each summer than she had all year at her public school in the Oakland hills. Even after she lost her job, she said, keeping Blythe at home was out of the question.

"Blythe deserves to learn, if she wants to learn," she said.

Blythe's parents used to spend $3,000 a year on her summer activities. Now, after scholarships and cutbacks, it's down to about $700, not including family trips. "We cut out many things, but we didn't have to cut out education," Rinehart said.

Laura's parents also are willing to make sacrifices for their daughter's future. Her mother, Marta Hernandez, tells her that if she keeps studying hard, she can have a fulfilling career and a good life.

"She asked me the other day if college tuition was really expensive," she said in Spanish. "I told her, 'Don't worry about that. That's why I'm working, so we can pay for your education.'"

Laura stared at the tears in her mom's eyes. "You're crying!" she said.

Last summer, Laura's mother took her daughters to Mexico. She wanted them to experience the culture of her homeland -- and to appreciate the opportunities before them in California.

But unless you know where to look, opportunity can be hard to find.

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