Christine Porter has all the makings of a campaign manager.
Desperate to get her message out, she's cold-calling houses. No phone? That's fine, she's got a homemade flier. No Internet connection? No problem, she's got people with computers.
Porter is selling, but it isn't politics. It's summer school.
As principal of Melrose Elementary, one of the lowest performing schools in Pinellas County, Porter knows that many of her students are far behind their peers. One in four students at Melrose already has been held back one to two years. Summer camp isn't just fun for these kids, it's critical. And this year, Pinellas County Schools is making a major push to get high-need students extra time in the classroom.
"Some students just need more help," said superintendent Mike Grego, who is behind the push.
To fill that need, the school system will offer Summer Bridge, a six-week program for students with low test scores, and Promise Time, which will give kids in 28 schools an extra hour or more of instruction after each regular school day. Both programs are voluntary.
While Grego has pulled both programs together in just the few months he has been on the job, his plan is based on well-established research.
The concept is a simple one: students benefit when they spend more time learning. Education researchers say that students living in poverty typically start school behind their middle- and upper-class peers. The summer break worsens that gap. Without extra help, students fall even further behind.
"That loss adds up," said Gary Huggins, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes summer programs. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University attributed two-thirds of the achievement gap by ninth grade to cumulative summer losses, he said.
Summer camps can help. Longer school days can help. But there's a catch.
"The problem is those programs have to be good," said Janet Richards, a professor in the University of South Florida's College of Education.
Instruction should be research-based. It should include pre- and post-tests, to find out what students knew at the beginning and what they learned by the end, she said. And the programs should include play, with both structured games and free time to break the tedium, learn problem solving and encourage creativity.
"Otherwise, it's just babysitting," Richards said.
Extended learning isn't a new concept. Massachusetts, often looked to as a national leader in education, has had success in urban schools with longer school days. The Knowledge Is Power Program, a national chain of charter schools known as KIPP, has boosted test scores with an extended school day and year.
In Florida, state officials required that the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools add an extra hour of reading instruction per day this year. Preliminary test data at the schools, including six in Pinellas, showed modest improvement in many grades.
At Woodlawn Elementary, for instance, only 20 percent of students in kindergarten "met expectations" on a test given early in the school year. Later in the year, 59 percent of students did. At Campbell Park Elementary, 24 percent of first-graders met expectations in the first test period; in the second period, 52 percent did.
If there's a cautionary tale, however, it's Miami-Dade's "school improvement zone."
The zone targeted 39 high-need schools, starting in the 2005-06 school year. One strategy was a longer school year and a longer school day. The result? After three years, principals and teachers told evaluators that they were burnt out. Students felt like the extra time was a punishment. And test scores weren't better than at other schools with similar demographics.
Grego said he's aware of some of the potential pitfalls. To avoid burn-out among teachers, he'd like to offer job sharing for Summer Bridge, where teachers could split a summer session. For Promise Time, he might look for teachers who have retired or are at home with their children but would like to teach an hour or so each day.
To keep kids engaged, instruction has to be different than what happens during the school day, Grego said. Bill Lawrence, the district's head of curriculum and instruction, said the focus will be on science, with hands-on activities. Science is a good choice because it requires students to use a variety of skills, he said.
"You have to be able to read. You have to be able to do math," he said.
Lawrence said Pinellas is "a little bit behind" when it comes to summer school. Years ago, the state provided funding for it. But when the money dried up, Pinellas didn't pursue a comprehensive model. Instead, it offered only what the state required — such as a remedial camp for third-grade reading — as well as piecemeal programs, many of which were organized by the schools. The camps often were two or three weeks long; research has shown better results from five- or six-week camps.
Huggins, of the National Summer Learning Association, said school districts should use summer programs for innovation and fun. Otherwise, students might not come.
"You can have the greatest learning program in the summer and if no one comes, it doesn't matter," he said.
That has been part of the challenge in Pinellas.
At Melrose, only 51 students have signed up out of 181 who qualified. At a community meeting last week, Porter, the principal, said that the online registration was a challenge for many of the families because they don't have Internet access. Teachers have been registering interested kids. Campbell Park got better results, with 200 students registered out of 289 eligible.
Some misinformation has gotten out, too. Some district officials are now saying that all students are eligible for Summer Bridge. That's not true, Grego said.
As of last week, he said about 3,400 students in elementary and middle school had signed up for the summer programs. (High school students are waiting on test results before they can register.) He targeted 10,000 to 12,000 for the program. District officials aren't sure how many students will be involved in the extended day programs next year.
Grego said he'd like to see both programs grow. But it has to be meaningful, he said, not just extra time tacked onto the day or the year.
"That's the key to this being successful," he said. "It's going to take some time."
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.