Sharpening math skills during summer recess, learning to play an instrument or taking a painting class had become a thing of the past for most Sacramento-area students in recent years.
State budget cuts had left schools with little money to fund summer classes beyond those for teens in need of credits to graduate.
But some local school districts are leveraging partnerships with community groups and national nonprofits to bring enrichment programs to thousands of students this summer.
Sacramento City Unified funds about half of its summer school program through partnerships with "a multitude" of foundations and community organizations, said Zenae Scott, district summer school coordinator.
"I think partnerships have increased," Scott said. "More importantly, they are much more strategic and intentional."
The district uses grants from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the California Endowment and numerous other nonprofits, as well as state and federal grants to keep summer school open at 10 sites for about 3,500 students.
It also is partnering with the Magic Johnson Foundation and Best Buy for the second year to offer the Geek Squad Summer Academy for fourth- through sixth-graders.
Elk Grove Unified is in its second year of a middle school summer program in partnership with Think Together and the National Summer Learning Association. The three-year program, with staff and curriculum from Think Together a nonprofit provider of extended learning time programs serves 1,800 students who are unlikely to be able to afford summer learning programs on their own, according to officials at the National Summer Learning Association.
Most of the cost of the summer school program comes from a $900,000 Smarter Summers grant from the Walmart Foundation.
Twin Rivers Unified has opted for a grass-roots approach, bringing together multiple community partners this summer to start a district-wide enrichment program for 500 first- through ninth-grade students.
The community partners, which include the Center for Fathers and Families, the Mutual Assistance Network, Sacramento Start and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Sacramento and the Stanford Settlement, held their own summer programs in previous years.
This year they come together to offer Summer Fun and Exploration at six sites in the school district. The seven-week program includes sports, arts and mentoring programs, as well as a focus on science, technology, engineering and math. Older students take part in a community service project and an anti-bullying class.
"This year we are all working together," said Rashid Sidqe, deputy executive director of the Center for Fathers and Families. "The kids wear the same shirt with the same logo. We hold professional development classes together."
He said the collaboration has meant at least 200 more students will be able to attend summer school this year.
Gary Huggins, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, said partnerships between schools and nonprofit organizations are critical to operating summer school programs. He said the number of these partnerships is on the upswing.
The Sacramento City Unified, Twin Rivers Unified and Elk Grove Unified programs all focus on schools in high-need areas.
"When we look at summer learning loss, the people affected the most are low-income and students of color," Scott said. "The gap widens when they don't take summer programs. They don't have the opportunities to have the same experiences as kids from more affluent families."
Huggins said that thinking of summer school as an "extra," instead of a necessity, is unwise considering that schools are on the hook for reaching achievement targets and must ramp up achievement to meet new national standards.
But even with outside help, districts aren't able to accommodate all the children who need or want to attend summer school.
"Obviously, in the past if you look back at what we offered during the summer we served a lot more students, and there were acceleration activities," said Elk Grove Unified spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich.
"Nationally there are 14 million kids in summer learning programs," Huggins said. "There are 24 million more on the outside looking in, who would be interested in taking part in those programs."
Those kids lose on average about two months of math skills and low-income or disadvantaged kids lose two months of reading skills over the summer, he said.
The learning loss is cumulative and has a big impact on the achievement gap, as it disproportionately affects low-income students, according to education experts.
"Two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap can be attributed to summer learning loss in reading," Huggins said.
Dee Nishimoto, director of Student Learning Assistance at San Juan Unified, understands how important reading is during school breaks. She said much summer learning loss can be attributed to limited access to books.
San Juan Unified, which stopped offering its four-day-a-week elementary summer enrichment program because of budget cuts, is combating learning loss with a limited summer reading program. The four-hour program is held every Monday at elementary and K-8 schools mostly in the district's neediest areas.
Elk Grove Unified doesn't have funds for elementary school summer enrichment programs, so some of its school sites are using federal funds to pay for summer classes. The Title I and Title III money is for schools in low-income areas or for English language learners.
Folsom Cordova Unified hasn't offered summer learning programs for most elementary students for about five or six years, said Janie DeArcos, assistant superintendent. The district holds two camps for middle school girls interested in engineering and a four-day camp for third- through sixth-grade students in the district's gifted program.