GWEN IFILL: Now: the first in a pair of stories this week on what some schools are doing to make sure students don't lose ground during the summer.
The NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, reports about efforts in Rhode Island to reduce the academic gap between the wealthy and the poor.
JOHN MERROW: Summer is a time when some kids get to go to camp, travel with their families, explore museums.
It's also a time when social and economic inequalities are evident. Many children in low-income communities miss out on these stimulating opportunities. They spend summer break in their neighborhood, hanging out.
GIRL: I don't do a lot of math in the summer. And I don't think my skills are improving.
BOY: My friends just sit home and watch TV. Yes, they don't do much.
JOHN MERROW: This difference in summer experiences has serious consequences. Educators call it summer learning loss. Children who don't have stimulating summer experiences forget more of the math and reading skills they need to do well in school.
By the time summer ends, the achievement gap between rich and poor is actually wider than it was in June. So, is summer school the answer?
HILLARY SALMONS, Providence After School Alliance: When kids hear summer school, they hear loser, failing, more school in an un-air conditioned building.
JOHN MERROW: Typically, summer remediation programs are held in the classroom. Students complete worksheets and practice math and reading skills for hours at a time. In many districts, including Providence, R.I., this type of learning wasn't working.
SUSAN LUSI, Providence Public School District: We could have remediation until the cows came home, and, one, substantial numbers of kids didn't attend, and, two, it wasn't effective.
JOHN MERROW: Providence is trying to change that by turning summer school into an experience that supports classroom learning and excites students.
This summer, 716 low-income students enrolled in Summer Scholars, a four-week program for middle school students. The program, which includes transportation and two meals a day, is free for kids, but costs about $1,200 per student. About half of the money comes from private sources, and the school district funds the rest.
At a time when 20 percent of districts across the country have eliminated summer school, Providence has redirected its summer remediation funds and is trying something different.
Sixth, seventh and eighth graders spend two mornings a week in the field with an instructor from a local organization like Save the Bay and a teacher from the district who ensures that students are practicing skills they struggled with during the year and will need in the fall.
In the afternoons, it's back to the classroom. There, teachers like Matthew Pierce create lessons to help students deepen their understanding of concepts they learned in the field.
MATTHEW PIERCE, Roger Williams Middle School: You have to work to keep their attention, especially at this middle school to early high school level. They will not -- they will just shut down on you if you don't do something fun and get them engaged.
We will add salt and we will see if it will make it float.
MATTHEW PIERCE: So, if you add salt and make it dense enough, it will float.
JOHN MERROW: Students worked collaboratively in the field and then applied what they learn back in the classroom to solve complex problems.
This is what educators call deeper learning. The Summer Scholars program is a partnership between the school district and 30 local organizations like the zoo, the YMCA and the Audubon Society. Public schools often work alone, but Providence has been building these relationships for years.
WOMAN: This is the knotweed. What we're trying to do is to get rid of it, let it know it's not taking over here.
JOHN MERROW: Today, students are learning about invasive species. Rick Taylor has been teaching in Providence for 17 years.
RICK TAYLOR, Nathan Bishop Middle School: I think, on a very basic level, we could say that they're just pulling weeds.
But in reality, they're also learning concepts that they can bring back into school during the school year that will help them, terms like biotic, abiotic. What's the difference between an environment and a habitat?
You could read about that in a textbook or you can actually go into the field and learn it firsthand. I think that firsthand experience, actually doing it, makes a dramatic difference.
DENISE JOHNSON, student: We do math, like circumference, diameter, but we have fun with it, because you get to explore outside, instead of like sitting inside and having your teacher teach you about it, and you still don't know how to, like, do it.
JOHN MERROW: Hands-on-learning is actually not a new idea. John Dewey wrote about it over 100 years ago. Montessori schools do it every day.
But it's appearing now in Providence because educators here were not happy with the results they have been getting using traditional teaching.
This district doesn't have terrific scores.
SUSAN LUSI: We have horrible scores.
JOHN MERROW: Don't your kids need remediation, instead of this summer fun?
SUSAN LUSI: I think the kind of drill and remediation that might lead to a temporary bump in scores is not the kind of education that really any parent wants for his or her child.
RICK TAYLOR: I think that's a branch from a tree. I don't think we're going to get that out.
What I have seen is a tremendous amount of growth very quickly in children. Kids are more actively involved and engaged. This program is very different from the traditional classroom setting.
BOY: Well, it's kind of like school because we're learning about stuff. And at the same time, we're having a lot of fun.
BOY: I found a web.
JOHN MERROW: Superintendent Lusi says programs like this are one way to level the playing field.
SUSAN LUSI: There are students who never leave Providence or maybe even their neighborhood. And I think people underestimate what the experiences and interactions that middle-class children tend to have, how that equips kids to engage with education.
So, this is a thoughtful, organized, but very fun way to provide those types of opportunities. The evaluation shows that students who attended these programs had better engagement in their classes and better grades, particularly in math.
JOHN MERROW: In the afternoon, students participate in activities like basketball, computers, art, and dance. It may have felt like camp to some, but even these activities incorporated learning into the fun. And students weren't the only ones having fun at school.
RICK TAYLOR: I'm learning to relate to children in a much different way. I like the way that I have been able to interact with them. It's very different from what I would do in a normal setting.
SUSAN LUSI: I have had teachers say to me, you know, we need to figure out a way to make school look more like this.
I think we have to get better and better at giving kids opportunities to apply their learning in ways that are interesting, as well as informative.
JOHN MERROW: The obvious goal of the Summer Scholars is to curb summer learning loss. But this way of teaching might change the way Providence schools approach teaching and learning all year long.
GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow night, we head across the country to Seattle, where a nonprofit is using summer school to achieve an even higher goal: getting students through high school and college.