During a time when many Florida counties were cutting back on summer school due to a lack of money, Pinellas County started expanding theirs using a combination of federal and state funds. And attendance over the past three summers has more than doubled.
Across Florida, more than 288,000 students were enrolled in summer classes in 2014. Nearly 15,000 of them are now enrolled in Pinellas County schools. One of those is Campbell Park Elementary, where the Summer Bridge Program is now under way.
In Summer Bridge, students in grades one through twelve can retake a class they failed during the school year or improve their reading, math or science skills. But Summer Bridge also offers online learning activities and some enrichment classes students can pay to attend like robotics.
Christine MacKay is a teacher for Summer Bridge. She knows some students are still apprehensive about summer classes by any name.
"We get hmmms and haaaaas," MacKay said. "We try to make it fun. We set incentives. We did a pizza day last week for our kids. We know it's summer. But we try to make it fun for them. We do know that they are just kids."
Since the program started in 2012, enrollment countywide has more than doubled.
Pinellas County School Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego admits he was a little concerned how the program would be received.
"It's not a mandatory program but it's amazing the high attendance rates that we're getting over the summer," Grego said.
"The first year was a little bit of ...'I wonder how many students are going to show up?'" Grego said. "It's been very successful. We have about 14,500 to 15,000 students enrolled. When we began this program two years ago it was just a little bit under 6,000 students."
Students like 13-year-old Hunter Kelley. He is taking Summer Bridge classes at Palm Harbor Middle School.
“I came here because I was doing bad in reading," Kelley said. "At first I was disappointed because I wanted to have a normal summer. But, once I got here and I was a couple of days in it was pretty okay.”
But Summer Bridge doesn't just help students who have gotten behind or need some extra support. MacKay says it also helps students stay in the habit of learning over the summer.
"Yeah, because we know learning does regress," MacKay said. "I have summer brain damage. I have to re-teach myself a lot of years. And that's the beauty about Summer Bridge, is you don't have that regression. There's no slip."
And that “slip” can make the difference between success and failure. Studies have shown students can lose two-and-a-half months of reading achievement over the summer and teachers can spend four to six weeks re-teaching students lessons they've already been taught.
And according to Grego a lack of summer opportunities disproportionately effects poor and minority students.
"The regression that takes place during the summer, especially among students who live in poverty, they don't have the same opportunities during the summer, they don't have the same enrichment opportunities," Grego said. "As students get further and further away from being on grade level then they lose hope. And when they lose hope they start to say 'I don't think I can climb this cliff any longer and I give up."
A few years ago the graduation rate for African-American students in Pinellas County was under 50 percent. Grego points out that in 2014 the rate was 61 percent.
"We're proud of that increase, but it's one of those things where you're proud of it, but it just isn't good enough. And we have a way to go," Grego said.
Summer Bridge is funded by pooling some federal and state funds.
It provides breakfast and lunch and some schools have before and after school care. There are no buses. Families are responsible for getting students to school on their own. But Christine MacKay says parental involvement is part of the plan.
"Huge parental involvement, and that's everything," MacKay said. "Every child you see in here the parent is responsible for bringing them and picking them up. So you know that's a family that really wants their child to succeed."
And Hunter Kelley who was having a hard time with reading? Now if you ask him about his favorite class...
“Probably reading," Kelley said. " The teacher's pretty nice and I get to sit with my friends. And I get to read fun articles.”
That might be taken as a ringing endorsement from a 13-year-old with six weeks of summer classes.