CLAREMONT — On a hot summer Wednesday, some South Bronx tweens met at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science and clicked away on laptops, posting entries on their personal blogs.
In another room, kids mapped out cross-country road trips, while down the hall a group practiced its step routine — "5-6-7-8, stomp, clap, stomp, stomp, stomp."
The middle-schoolers weren’t at an arts camp or in summer school, but rather in a new, voluntary Department of Education pilot program designed for students who were promoted to the next grade, but squeaked by on their state tests.
"The idea is to prevent summer learning loss from taking place," Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Wednesday after he toured Urban Assembly AMS on Bathgate Avenue and 172nd Street and even tried, unsuccessfully, to join in the dance routine.
"It’s learning," Walcott added, "but in the context of having fun."
The three-year pilot program, funded with $2.4 million in private funds, targets 13 schools in the South Bronx, where poverty rates are higher and test scores lower than in most other school districts.
For the pilot, called Summer Quest, each school partnered with a nonprofit to design a five-week program that combines engaging academic work with the kinds of enrichment activities — soccer, drama, painting, camping — common at pricey summer camps.
The city’s hope is that the arts and sports, the weekly field trips, the two free meals and a snack each day, will entice students to attend the voluntary program where, almost without realizing it, they’ll get a daily workout of reading and math to keep their minds fit.
The alternative isn’t pretty.
Research shows that while higher-income students who attend camps or visit libraries and museums during the summer make slight gains in reading, lower-income students typically lose more than two months worth of reading skills during the same period.
"We see a lot of gains during the school year, but then it’s lost," said Asia Franks, an 8th-grade math teacher at Urban Assembly AMS. "We take 10 steps, but then it’s three steps back."
The more than 1,100 elementary- and middle-school students in the pilot are ones Walcott referred to as "on the bubble" — students who passed the state tests, but just barely.
Even though the program runs from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. five days a week, Urban Assembly AMS found 140 willing participants — more than half of its total middle school population.
It’s not hard to see why they signed up.
The school’s program, designed and operated with the nonprofit Wingspan Arts, offers acting, stepping, painting, soccer, boot camp-style fitness, hip-hop dancing, piano-playing and an overnight camping trip.
Students receive their daily dose of academics through courses like "Numbers, Patterns and a Trip Across the U.S." or the blogging class, where students research and write posts about their interests, which range from social justice to Lil’ Wayne.
"Once you put a computer in front of a kid, they’re just immediately plugged in," said humanities teacher Jinnette Caceres, who is teaching the blogging class. "That’s what makes it feel like not school."
On Wednesday, Hawa Gikineh, 12, barely looked up from her laptop when the schools chancellor toured her blogging class — she was too busy typing her thoughts on fashion, music, politics, bullying and the court system.
"A blog is a place for you to express yourself," Hawa said, adding that her take on the criminal justice system would be inspired, in part, by the TV show "Criminal Minds."
Earlier in the day, before Walcott bravely entered the step class, he blurted out a sentiment that many of the summer program students likely shared.
"I’m going to sleep well tonight," he said.