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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.

The camp is free and students are not required to attend. Still, daily attendance hovers around 55 students per day, and about 80 kids have participated at some point this summer.

"I think kids are natural learners and given the context of interesting play, they are learning," said Dale Dougherty, president of Maker Media. "I actually think it's more about their experience of learning; having a positive experience and developing an identity as a learner and doer."

That notion rang true with Patty Perez-Mendoza, an incoming eighth-grader at Comstock.

"It's fun here. We get to see our friends and make stuff," she said, holding a wooden car she designed and crafted herself. "I just made this. I really didn't know how.

"At home, we are just watching TV and eating stuff," she said. "Here, we are making stuff."

The second annual camp this year was opened up to graduating sixth-graders from Comstock's feeder elementary schools. That fosters both a connection to Comstock as a campus, but also to teachers whom students likely will meet in the halls either at Comstock or later at Piner High School.

Comstock science teacher and Make Camp instructor John Lundblad said these summer weeks give him a chance to meet and teach incoming students in a less formal setting than teachers or students experience in August through May.

He pointed to a student pressing glue to expanses of tissue while making a hot air balloon.

"He and I, we are going to have a relationship when school starts," he said. "School, sometimes it's tough. Students who feel comfortable in the classroom learn so much better."

For Piner science and Make teacher Dante DePaola, a key point is allowing students to try, fail and fix their own mistakes.

"In a classroom, you might miss a vocabulary word and it's 'You get an 8 out of 10,'" he said. "Here, it's a way to say 'How do we do that different? How do we make it work?' Mistakes are a great opportunity for learning."

Boys & Girls Club program director Robyn Kopp said keeping students around engaged adult role models has intangible positive affects on students.

"We have enthusiastic, energetic adults who are really jazzed about showing concepts and engaging. It's so important," she said. "(Students) are seeing someone model successful adult habits."

The Make camp also is about experience, she said. Students get to try their hands with saws and glue guns one day, iPads the next.

Kopp pointed to a boy sitting at a picnic table editing a video on an iPad. He had never been to the beach before Wednesday, when campers were taken to Goat Rock State Beach to create driftwood sculptures.

But Make Camp is not all about academic skills, Kopp said.

Students are divided into teams — there are daily dodgeball, tag and other games to greet kids when they arrive. The teams compete against each other for success with hot air balloon loft and carbon-dioxide-powered car distance.

Incoming Comstock eighth-grader Alex Cervantes has made and edited a video on an iPad and on Thursday was building a carbon-dioxide-powered wooden race car.

"It wouldn't happen if I wasn't here," he said.

News researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this story. Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit. blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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