Manny DeLeon got straight A's last year as an eighth-grader at Comstock Middle School, but he signed up for Make Camp because he didn't want to lose a step academically over the summer.
Just like the image its name conjures, students at the three-week camp make things: chairs out of cardboard, carbon-dioxide-powered cars, videos and hot air balloons.
"It's really fun. It gives me something to do that I actually enjoy," DeLeon said as he designed a cardboard chair Thursday. "It's a chance to make something I'm really proud of."
The second annual Make Camp is focused not just on fun, but on reinforcing academic concepts and fostering curiosity, all in the summer months when many kids let their minds go idle.
So-called summer learning loss hits socioeconomically disadvantaged kids harder than their peers, according to studies.
And the impact is not just felt in the first few weeks of school, when math concepts feel rusty for most kids. Over time, the losses can add up and exacerbate the achievement gap between white, middle- and upper-class students and students of color or those from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes.
Two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income ninth-graders and their peers is attributable to summer learning loss, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.
"This is a huge issue that comes up for kids," said Mickey Porter, assistant superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.
For many children from low-income families, access to summer learning experiences — camps, sports teams, vacations and excursions — is not a choice their parents are able to make, she said.
"It's not that families in poverty wouldn't think to sit down and play Scrabble, it's, is that on their docket for what life holds?" she said. "For people who are struggling more, they don't necessarily have the luxury to have an adult at home."
At least 11 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 are unsupervised over the summer months, according to the Johns Hopkins study.
For some students, a summer camp can provide a time where academic language can be used, where access to books and discussions occur and students can remain curious and engaged, said Jenn Meyers, principal of the Migrant Education Summer Program, which is housed at Monroe Elementary School in Santa Rosa but run through the Butte County Office of Education.
About 230 pre-kindergarten through fifth-graders qualified for the four-week program because they have moved within the past three years across state or school district lines so a guardian could get seasonal employment in agriculture, fishing or food processing.
"Oftentimes, when they start out, they start out behind," Meyers said.
While their learning during the school year is on pace, the lag returns during the summer months, she said.
"We have parents who are working one, two, three jobs, and aren't able to support the kids in that way," she said. "It's not that families don't want to; it's about need."
And with dramatic cuts to summer school in recent years, more kids are spending their summer months idling away, far from academic conversation or even books, educators said.
At the Make Camp, Santa Rosa City Schools has partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Central Sonoma County to run a three-week, half-day camp in which three district teachers are giving lessons in physics, mechanics, art and engineering. The camp is funded in large part by a $35,000 grant from the Nancy C. and Dale Dougherty Foundation.