Lhaya Athill, 10, carefully cut out a set of lungs and glued them to her life-size model of a child’s body in a classroom at the Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City.

“I like science,” she said as she displayed the heart and circulatory system already in place on her model.

The systems of the human body are one academic theme for students in Atlantic City schools this summer. Other students are studying insects, ocean life and making robotic arms, Supervisor Anne Lofaro said.

Summer vacation is still a time for learning in many area school districts. But while suburban schools may charge for summer-enrichment programs, urban and low-income districts still offer free programs in an effort to make sure students don’t lose what they learned the year before, and to help struggling students catch up.

Research has shown that while suburban students continue to learn during the summer, urban and low-income children fall behind, losing more than two months of math and reading skills. A 2007 report found that about two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be attributed to unequal access to summer learning programs during the elementary school years.

Gary Huggins, executive director of the National Summer Learning Association, said in a recent online seminar that without summer programs, urban children will never catch up to their suburban peers.

Tight budgets have meant summer cutbacks in many districts. Districts with a high percentage of low-income children typically use federal Title I funds — which they receive to help disadvantaged children — to fund their summer programs.

Typically, teachers recommend specific children for the programs. Children at Sovereign Avenue often speak limited English, so the summer is a chance to improve their English skills. Children with disabilities are often required to receive extra summer sessions.

English and math are stressed in all programs, but so is fun, or students won’t attend. Hammonton Project Enrich administrator Kimberly Velardi said the academic work is integrated into projects to keep students engaged.

In its eighth year, Project Enrich includes a cooking class, fantasy baseball, tracking the stock market and rocket building for 100 students entering the seventh and eighth grades.

“We are honing their skills, but I’m not sure they realize it,” said Hammonton social studies teacher Jason Massara. “Attendance is good, at least 75 percent a day, and we are seeing results on the state tests in the spring, especially in math.”

Velardi said the lessons are meant to be challenging and to teach students how to make decisions, think critically and work with others.

Hammonton’s Achievement Academy, for 90 students in kindergarten through third grade, is a chance for struggling readers to improve their skills. Teacher Nereida Rosado teaches a first-grade bilingual class during the year and has many of her students in the summer program.

“I know what they need and can pick up where we left off in June,” she said. “Three hours a day here really helps them.”

Huggins said that while summer programs should be engaging, districts should track student progress to make sure they are also effective. Damiso Josey, program administrator for the Achievement Academy, said the children are assessed at the beginning and end of the program.

Pleasantville’s C.A.R.E. 21st Century Community Learning Center Program tested students’ skills in a Geography Bowl on Friday in which students from three sites will compete against each other to see how well they know the states and their capitals.

Teacher Mia Campo said that while her Sovereign Avenue students won’t get grades, she does a pre-assessment before the lessons to see what students know about the human body, then will test them again at the end to see what they’ve learned. She said some of the lessons, such as the human body, cover topics students have learned or will learn in school, but the summer session allows them to focus on one topic for an extended period of time.

Lofaro said summer is also a time for teachers to do hands-on projects they may not get to during the school year. Monica Clerontis, 7, got her hands on a painted lady butterfly when one landed on her finger during an outdoor release of butterflies the class had watched emerge from cocoons in their classrooms.

“It felt beautiful,” she said with a big smile.

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241