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One tactic to shrink achievement gap: tackle 'summer learning loss'

Sailing, marine life, and field trips are part of a program to prevent a summertime loss of reading and math skills among low-income students in Boston. Its aim is to help close the achievement gap.

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Elias Priero (r.) helped instructor Kayla McLaughlin Aug. 1 during a free school program in Boston.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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On a sweltering August day, student Hendrick Estrella sits on a sailboat, dragging his hand through the waves and reveling in the coolness of Boston Harbor. The day before, he had touched – and tasted – a striped bass, gathering details for a book he is writing about fish.

He is one of 35 rising fourth-graders from Boston's Harvard/Kent Elementary School who immersed themselves this summer in five weeks of salty, splashy fun while boosting their math and literacy skills.

It's all part of an innovative approach that Boston Public Schools and many nonprofit partners here are taking to prevent "summer learning loss" – the slide in math and reading skills for low-income children who lack structured opportunities.

For all the accolades that Massachusetts receives for high academic achievement, it still faces stark achievement gaps. In third-grade state reading tests, for example, fewer than 40 percent of Latino and African-American students scored at or above the proficient level in 2011, compared with nearly 70 percent of white students. Similar gaps show up in eighth-grade math.

"We are working hard in what are called our gateway cities, especially, to try to close those gaps, and the state is experimenting with many different ways of doing that," says Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Summer learning loss accounts for a sizable portion of achievement gaps, education research shows.

Mitchell Chester, the state's education commissioner, says he's put more focus on closing achievement gaps overall – for instance, by incorporating various measures of student gains in the teacher evaluation system. The state has also taken over the schools in Lawrence, a district riddled with corruption and dismal achievement.

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