It's the same story every fall when Iliana Rincon Ramos returns to school from summer vacation: Before the class can move forward, they'll all need to review what they learned last year.

"Technically, fourth grade is just a review of third grade, and fifth grade is just a review of fourth grade," said Iliana, a rising fifth-grader at Mary Ford Elementary in North Charleston. "It's just reviewing. That's what it feels like."

Students lose ground over summer vacation. Teachers know it, researchers have known it for decades, and education leaders in South Carolina are still trying to figure out how best to address the problem.

Toward that end, summer school programs and day camps are increasingly being asked to do more than keep children out of trouble. In order to receive and keep grants, many program organizers have to prove that they're either moving the needle or keeping students from falling behind academically.

Particularly in schools with high levels of poverty, the phenomenon of "summer learning loss," also known as the "summer slide," can set students further and further behind their peers. Research suggests that a lack of extracurricular activities or books in the home are partly to blame.

One analysis of the research on summer learning loss in the Review of Educational Research found that students' achievement test scores tend to decline by about one month's worth of learning over summer vacation, with sharper declines in math than in reading.

While middle-class students often improve their literacy skills over the summer, lower-income students tend to fall behind.

That meta-analysis came out in 1996. Twenty-two years later, the problem still vexes schools in South Carolina and elsewhere.

"Research is well aware of the issue, and as practitioners, principals and teachers are well aware of the issue. But it doesn’t seem to have a lot of political power or awareness," said Rachael James, program manager at the College of Charleston's Afterschool and Summer Learning Resource Center.

The approach to fixing the problem has been piecemeal so far in South Carolina, with different schools and districts trying out different programs. Part of James' job is to evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs, but, so far, most of her work has focused on after-school programs.

This summer, for the first time, she'll be investigating a summer program: Freedom School, a culturally relevant six-week program that traces its roots back to the civil rights movement. An internal review with a small sample size showed promise last summer, and now James is taking a closer look.

"The goal is ultimately to advance them, but if they hold ground, that’s great, too," James said.

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Mary Ford Summer Camp

Kindergartener Madison Blake reacts after she finished reading her book to Foster Grandparent Program volunteer Gloria Brown and fellow student Caryinton Sainch during summer day camp at Mary Ford Elementary Wednesday. The summer camp is meant to address the problem of summer learning loss. Brad Nettles/Staff

Finding what works

Ask five educators, and you might get five pet projects or theories on summer learning loss.

This summer, the S.C. Department of Education is helping to secure state and federal funds for the North Charleston-based nonprofit organization Engaging Creative Minds to provide programs in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) for Allendale and Barnwell County students.

Elsewhere, the international nonprofit Save the Children has been working in rural South Carolina schools for years. The Education Department is also trying to secure federal funds for that group's summer programs in Orangeburg County, according to agency spokesman Brown.

At Iliana's school, they might have hit on a solution. In a partnership between the Charleston County School District and the nonprofit Charleston Promise Neighborhood, students from Mary Ford and Chicora Elementary meet for four weeks early in the summer in a program that's free for families, with breakfast, lunch and snacks included.

They spend the mornings in the classroom focused on reading and math. Students might spend time on computer-based assignments that tailor themselves to the students' precise academic levels; other days they might work on group projects. In Courtney Reed's classroom of rising fifth-graders Wednesday morning, students were collaborating on a television newscast, complete with cameras and a green screen. Along the way, they practiced their language skills by filling out "job applications" and conducting interviews with each other.

"The expectations are the same as a normal school day, but we want to make it more engaging," Reed said.

The afternoons are spent at EPIC, an enrichment program with a focus on science that the Charleston County district offers in many of its schools. They also take field trips, including a night trip to the S.C. Aquarium — the sorts of fun, educational experiences that students from low-income homes might miss out on otherwise.

Each program has its own small body of research to back it up. Last summer, for instance, the Charleston Promise Neighborhood had students at Mary Ford take the Measures of Academic Progress reading test at the beginning and end of the four-week program. They found that 63 percent of students either grew or maintained their reading levels. The rest fell back.

EPIC has its own body of research, too. While the program is partly focused on preventing the summer slide, the research focuses on the hazier topic of engagement. Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute surveyed campers in 2015 and found that the majority “reported increases in positive attitudes toward science, math, reading and writing as a result of attending camp.”

Iliana gives the summer program at Mary Ford a positive review. In her first week, she said, she was already moving ahead with division and multiplication skills. When she goes back to school this fall, she could be further along academically than she was at the end of fourth grade.

Plus, it's a lot of fun. They built a catapult this week, and it worked.

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Mary Ford Summer Camp

Teacher Jason Kraeger works with 3rd and 4th graders during summer day camp at Mary Ford Elementary Wednesday. The summer camp is meant to address the problem of summer learning loss. Brad Nettles/Staff

The year-round fix?

There is an elephant in the room any time educators talk about summer learning loss: This could all go away if schools eliminated summer vacation.

For the time being, that's not possible in South Carolina. 

Responding to a concerted push from some parents, high school athletic boosters and the tourism industry — which relies on teenage labor in the summer months — state legislators passed a law in 2006 effectively banning year-round schools except for special exceptions granted by the State Board of Education. The law also requires the school year to start no earlier than the third Monday in August.

Today, there are only three schools in the state operating on a year-round schedule, according to the S.C. Department of Education: The Academy of Teaching and Learning in Chester County, Henry Timrod Elementary in Florence School District 1, and McColl Elementary Middle School in Marlboro County. A fourth school, Cleveland Academy of Leadership in Spartanburg School District 7, operates on an extended-year schedule.

But even year-round school is not a silver bullet. In North Carolina, the Wake County Public School System started trying out year-round schools in the 1990s and has since adopted a complex "multi-track" year-round calendar at many of its schools. By staggering groups of students and giving them short "track-out" vacations throughout the year, the school system was able to fit about 25 percent more students in each school building while dealing with a population boom in the Research Triangle.

Designed for efficiency, the change did not yield dramatic academic improvements. According to district spokesman Tim Simmons, many students still lose ground academically during their three-week track-outs.

In the end, the length of a school year in Wake County is not much different than anywhere else in North Carolina — it's just arranged differently. If the goal was to prevent summer learning loss by changing the calendar, the actual length of the school year would have to increase.

"If you don't put more time on task, it doesn't matter what calendar you use," Simmons said.

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Mary Ford Summer Camp

Kindergartener Genesis Maguire is surprised when she got the answer right for first year teacher Amy Cook during summer day camp at Mary Ford Elementary Wednesday. The summer camp is meant to address the problem of summer learning loss. Brad Nettles/Staff

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.