Elementary school students devote their time to math and English classes every morning at the Sportsmen’s Tennis Center in Dorchester. But the afternoons are a freewheeling opportunity to learn to hit a ball with a raquet.

The program is free and there’s a waitlist for seats.

Just a few miles away at Sociedad Latina’s summer science program in Roxbury, about a third of the seats for middle schoolers are empty.

“We’re definitely underenrolled,” program director Angelica Rodriguez said, who added it made her concerned about some students’ readiness for fall.

Summer school is a key pandemic recovery strategy in the state’s largest district, but with summer halfway over, enrollment is not meeting expectations. Earlier this year, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius projected that she would fill more than 15,000 seats for the district's credit recovery, special education and English learner summer academy programs, as well as "Fifth Quarter" academic acceleration courses.

The district said 11,130 students attended those summer programs the week ending July 19, about three-quarters of what was expected.

Programs like its English Learner Summer Academy filled 655 of the 2,500 projected seats last month — just 26%. Summer school for special education students enrolled about 3,675 seats out of 5,000 that were expected. Another program to help students recover credit was down by nearly 300 students when it had expected over 3,000.

Jayliana (right) learns to tell time in class with a BPS teacher on a recent morning at the tennis center.
Meg Woolhouse / GBH News

Summer in Boston typically presents a crucial opportunity for many low-income students to catch up with peers who have access to camps, tutors or other programming. The pandemic has widened the achievement gap between the city's low-income students and their wealthier peers, making summer school that much more important this year.

Cassellius noted its critical role herself in April at a press conference rolling out the program.

“This summer is the most important I’ve seen in my entire career,” she said.

Program directors and district officials offer a host of reasons why students aren’t enrolling, from transportation issues to a lack of interest in some summer school programs that are remote.

Some families don’t want their kids to join group activities or are reluctant to do so due to COVID-19. They may be grieving pandemic deaths or concerned about the rise of the Delta variant, especially when children under the age of 12 can’t be vaccinated.

Rodriguez at Sociedad Latina said many students wanted the summer off or went on vacation because pandemic restrictions were lifted. Teachers felt the same way, making it challenging to find new hires. (She found four.)

“A lot of the teachers just wanted to take a break this summer,” she said.

Difficulty recruiting teachers also meant that Boston had to hire teachers from outside the district to fill teaching slots. Even after doing that, the district says hiring fell 200 teachers short of its nearly 1,900 goal.

The school district has been trying to get word out about the programs, including advertising on billboards in a variety of languages. The district also had multilingual staff and voluteers reach out to families personally to encourage them to send their kids to summer school, a spokesman said.

The district has advertised summer school programs in various languages.
Courtesy of Boston Public Schools

Greater Boston Legal Services senior lawyer Elizabeth McIntyre said many of her low-income clients with children never saw that kind of personal outreach, or they learned about programming too late and made alternate plans.

“I know that for many of my clients, that kind of outreach didn't happen,” she said. “It's been such a tough year, and that kind of individualized outreach takes a lot of time.”

There is also no requirement for the district to provide transportation to summer programs, with the exception of the special education population. McIntyre says that also hindered enrollment because some parents had to walk 40 minutes with their child to the closest summer program.

Parents can’t make that trip four times a day and hold down a job, she said.

Rand Corporation director Jennifer Sloan McCombs, who has studied summer school programs nationally and in Boston, said more districts around the nation are adopting new summer school programming. Some are modeled after Boston’s 10-year effort to build summer schools that mix academics with fun activities.

And while districts embrace summer school as a way to regain skills and battle pandemic learning loss, it’s not clear whether parents and students wanted those programs after a school year unlike any other in the last century.

"This is something [researchers] are investigating across the country," she said. "What is the demand at this point from families?"

BPS partners with a nonprofit called Boston After School & Beyond to co-manage its Fifth Quarter sites, like the Sociedad Latina's hybrid science and math program for middle schoolers or the Sportsman's tennis program.

Executive Director Chris Smith said some of the offerings that were remote weren't as popular as in-person programs. Meanwhile, popular in-person programs, like the tennis center’s, operated at reduced capacity due to pandemic concerns. But he said more than 71 community organizations offered programming, a new all-time high.

“We’ll want to take a look at the end of the summer to see which programs succeed and why,” he said. “It wasn’t for a lack of effort, but the proof is always in the pudding. Who shows up where? That tells you something.”

Some of Boston’s traditional summer school academic programs are held in un-airconditioned classrooms, a problem in the recent record-breaking heat.

Summer school at the Franklin Park Zoo also takes place in classrooms without air conditioning. Two of the classrooms don’t even have windows. But students spend their afternoons outdoors learning about animals, and the program has a wait list.

Smith says more of that kind of programming is needed “to engage more kids on their terms, so that they own their own learning.”

That's also what's happening at Sportsman’s Tennis Center in Dorchester, where rising third and fourth graders are ready to burn off some energy every day after lunch and once their classwork is done.

Rising fourth grader Qulaysha Brandon started three weeks ago after a full year of remote learning. She didn’t like school — before or during the pandemic. But summer school with tennis had great appeal.

“I was actually excited to see if I could meet people who I would like and people who would like me,” she said.

It paid off. On a recent afternoon, she showed off her hair, dyed purple, and ran around the tennis courts laughing with her new friends.

The mood was hyper.

Sportsmen’s Education Director Charlynne Mines-Smart sighs deeply thinking about the kids she has to turn away.

“It is hard to think about what the beginning of the school year is going to be like for that student who didn't go to school, stayed virtual all last year and did not participate in any programming,” she said.