Two lines of fourth and fifth graders are waiting at the edge of a pond at Hale Reservation in Westwood, MA.

“Ready. Set. Go, go, go!” yells a lifeguard standing on the beach.

The kids race toward another lifeguard standing waist deep in the water.  After tagging him, they swim to the dock and watch the relay race.

It’s hard to believe that a few weeks ago some of these kids didn’t swim very well, and some didn’t swim at all.

Eight-year-old J’arah Innis was nervous to come here when she heard they’d swim every day.

“When I kept practicing a lot I started to get it,” Innis says. “And now I swim good. I feel like I could teach kids how to swim.”

The five-week camp gives city kids like Innis new experiences, such as swimming and hiking, but it also addresses an academic problem. Low-income students lose one to two months of knowledge and skills over the summer.

Ropes, Row-Boats and Reading

At this camp, along with playing outside, there’s a heavy dose of math, language arts, and ecology.                                                                

Around eight students wearing T-shirts and shorts are sitting around a picnic table while teacher Cheryl O’Connor points to a diagram of the water cycle.

“Acid rain. Acid Snow,” she says. “Where do you think the rain might pick up that acid with what we know about precipitation? Where might that acid be?”

O’Connor is teaching a language arts lesson about water.  When she’s not at summer camp, O’Connor teaches fourth and fifth grade at the Russell Elementary School in Dorchester. She usually has a few students attending this camp, and she’s seen the impact firsthand.

”When they come back, they’ve not fallen into that summer slump,” O’Connor says. “They are above where the other kids are. When we introduce this work, they are helping their peers along with it.”          

More Prepared

O’Connor’s observations about her students were backed up by a six-year study in Boston and four other cities.

 “We know that those kids are more prepared to start the next school year than the ones who weren’t exposed,” says Jan Manfredi, Boston’s head of summer learning.   

She says the results convinced Boston to invest its own money in sending kids to summer camp. Before now, a $10 million grant from the Wallace Foundation covered the costs. The grant ran out, so this year Boston is paying $1.4 million to send about 2,000 of its students to summer learning camp. The majority are from low-income families.

“The earlier we can get kids on grade level academically, the better off they’re going to be moving forward,” Manfredi says.

That’s the hope for J’arah Innis, who begins fourth grade next month. She says she’s bad at math, but learned a lot of new things in her math class at camp. She’s excited to start school.

 “I’ll be smart when I go to school,” Innis says. “And I can teach some of the kids the things I learned at camp.”

Production assistant Tristan Cimini contributed to this report.

WGBH’s coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.