Fifth Quarter in Cincinnati: Not your mother's summer school

May 30 marks the last day of school for Cincinnati Public Schools and the beginning of summer vacation. For many, this date corresponds to the end of a nine-month journey tantamount to full-on liberation from homework and early wake-ups. Come May 30, thousands of kids in Cincinnati will walk out the front door of their local schools for a 12-week hiatus.

But for many Cincinnati students and their families, the last day of school can be stressful. To youth with scarce resources to fill their newly acquired time and inadequate adult supervision to ensure a safe and fun summer break, the last day of school marks the beginning of what researchers call the “summer slide.” It’s a time when many disadvantaged and/or low-income students experience a deterioration of concepts and skills they’ve learned throughout the year.

To combat the potential slide, CPS offers an innovative summer school program that gets kids off the streets, keeps them with their friends and teaches them important concepts essential for academic success. It’s serving as a model for schools and districts around the country. And here’s the best part - it’s actually fun.

Fifth Quarter isn’t the remedial summer school of days gone by. It’s reading, writing and arithmetic in the morning, and fun outings to places like King’s Island, city pools and local events in the afternoon. Operated at 18 sites this year for students in grades K-7, the 5th Quarter outreach program brings students and teachers together for a five-week, full-day extension of the school year. The goals: strengthen academic skills, improve knowledge retention and provide social enrichment.

“Fifth Quarter provides an extra level of support, instruction and enrichment to kids who are at risk of losing what they’ve gained during the traditional school year,” says Khalilah Slater-Harrington, CPS’ 5th Quarter coordinator. “Part of the instruction includes a preview of what they’ll be learning as they move on to the next grade level.”

The program targets under-performing and low-income schools and is funded by a combination of federal Title I dollars and the Wallace Foundation. The program also includes a network of community partners to provide support for afternoon programming.

Outings to parks and the local pools are as common as horseback riding, music programs and participation in summer events like Paddlefest. According to Slater-Harrington, it’s not just about spending the day on roller coasters or jumping cannonball-style into the pool.

“We try to incorporate an educational component into each activity,” she says. “Partners with expertise in enrichment and leadership are the key.” This year, 5th Quarter students at Carson School on the West Side will work with the May Festival, focusing on choral music just in time for the World Choir Games. Students at Chase Elementary will work with the new literacy and creative-writing focused nonprofit WordPlay to create stories based on the “Around the World” theme. They will also be part of Northside’s Fourth of July Parade and Family Festival.

Craig Hockenberry, principal of the Oyler program site in Price Hill says, “Before 5th Quarter, I often noticed our students on the street or hanging around the school. This program gets them off the street and feeds them two healthy meals a day – something many of them don’t get at home.”

As a 5th Quarter school for the past several years, Oyler students have shown promising performance improvement. “Last year we focused on second graders, and worked on math for the entire 5th Quarter,” principal Hockenberry says. The next school year, about 80 percent of the students passed state math proficiency tests.

“We have noticed leaps in achievement in schools where 5th Quarter is taking place,” Slater-Harrington agrees.

Now entering its fourth year, 5th Quarter has garnered national attention from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Wallace Foundation and The RAND Corporation for its innovations in serving high-poverty, low-performance schools at a time when economic conditions often mean budget cuts. This year, with financial assistance from the Wallace Foundation and in partnership with The RAND Corporation, 5th Quarter will join only six school districts in the nation to take part in a multi-million dollar demonstration study on the effects of summer programming on student success.

“We’re seeing that summer programming is the game-changer in education,” says Slater-Harrington. “This partnership with the Wallace Foundation and RAND will bring financial resources and the research capacity we need to develop the baseline data to show that what we’re doing is working.”