CLEARWATER - After six weeks of summer school, 10-year-old Adrian Baker stood in front of his third-grade class at Sandy Lane Elementary Wednesday and presented his final project: a colorful paper plate collage containing facts from the book "Sea Life."
Baker stumbled over his opening sentences, letting his nerves get the best of him, but then coyly put his finger to his chin as he selected his favorite fact to read aloud to the class. "Barracudas have strong lower jaws for killing."
For Baker, who struggles with reading, and for his teachers, it was a big moment to hear him discussing the book and to know he had absorbed its lessons and vocabulary.
Like Baker, many of the 9,143 students enrolled in Pinellas County Schools' Summer Bridge program, which ended on Wednesday, struggle in reading and other subjects. The program represents the school district's first attempt at a wide-scale summer effort to close the county's achievement gap, particularly among low-income and minority students.
Superintendent Michael Grego said he was "ecstatic" with the final enrollment numbers. Next year, as word of mouth continues, the number of students participating will be even bigger, he said.
The summer school program cost about $3.1 million in state and Title 1 federal funding, which covered costs for 495 teachers, supplies and materials. No money came from the school district's budget. About $2.2 million of that went for salaries and benefits, and the remaining $900,000 paid for materials and supplies for the program, much of which can be used in the coming school year and the 2014 Summer Bridge program.
Students focused on reading, writing and math skills and also participated in weekly science experiments, such as measuring plant growth, studying birds' feeding patterns and powering race cars with blown-up balloons. Students also learned good character traits, said 7-year-old Milani Ozuna, a rising second-grader at Rawlings Elementary School in Pinellas Park.
Though the program ran smoothly, Shelli August, a third-grade teacher at Sandy Lane in Clearwater, said more organization during registration, which was open the entire six weeks of the program, would have saved time tracking down students' academic records to identify which skills to develop.
Terrilyn George, whose 9-year-old son Parker attended Summer Bridge at Belleair Elementary in Clearwater, said the curriculum could have been more challenging.
"I think it helped maintain where he was at," George said. "I haven't seen a dramatic increase, though I think it was beneficial."
Grego has formed focus groups with Summer Bridge teachers to help develop future programs and said next summer's curriculum will be more focused on making sure students learn material needed in the next grade level. Instructors will also stress the importance of daily attendance, even though the program is voluntary, Grego said.
Students took assessment tests at the start and end of summer school to track their learning gains over the course of the program, and Grego said the school district plans to track them throughout the 2013-2014 school year to see long-term effects of the program.