Little “scholars” grabbed white paper breakfast bags as they hopped off their assigned buses last month at Stephen Decatur Elementary School and crowded against the walls in a hallway to eat.

They’re the lucky ones, program manager Stephanie Werner said.

The scene resembled a routine first day at any elementary school for these 160 students, except that it was summer and they were participating in a well-regarded program called Summer Advantage, designed to help them catch up to, or even jump ahead of, their peers.

But fewer kids than ever got the chance to reap the potential benefits.

“I’ve seen students come to us struggling at their current levels,” said Werner, who teaches second grade at Gold Academy during the school year. “When they return to school after being in Summer Advantage, they’re more on level with where they should be and where we would want the kids to be academically.”

Last year, more than twice as many Decatur kids — 350 of them — participated in Summer Advantage, a free program founded and nurtured in Indianapolis that aims to boost test scores for poor kids.

The trend is statewide: a fraction of the kids who were once a part of the program in Indiana are enrolled this summer.

Despite what supporters say is a strong track record of success, the once fast-growing program is now fading fast from Indiana while expanding to other places around the country. In Indianapolis, Summer Advantage is completely gone from two districts that were once key players — Pike Township and Indianapolis Public Schools.

So what happened?

The answer is partly money — after initial grants ran out, districts said they couldn’t afford to keep the program going. But founder Earl Martin Phalen thinks there’s more to the story. Districts cut ties with the program at the same time he launched a charter school.

A winning idea

Phalen, a one-time Harvard classmate of President Barack Obama, was the first winner of The Mind Trust’s education entrepreneur fellowship in 2009. The idea behind the fellowship was to cast a wide net in search of innovative ideas to help kids learn and bring the innovators to Indianapolis to try them out.

Once a foster kid, Phalen excelled to eventually graduate from Yale, and then Harvard. He joined a mentoring program while in law school and felt a kinship with children who needed help in school. So instead of working as a lawyer, he spent several years at a Boston nonprofit he co-founded that supported mentoring and after school programs. The summer, Phalen thought, was a missed opportunity for kids who needed a boost.

Phalen’s idea for Summer Advantage beat out hundreds of applications and he was given a year’s salary and start-up money to get the program off the ground on the condition he start it in Indianapolis.

Decatur signed on in 2009 to try it out and district officials were pleased by the results.

Based on tests given before and after students participated in Summer Advantage, kids were making as much ground academically in five weeks as they were during a full quarter of a school year. A student who was reading at a level that would be expected at the start of third grade, for example, was reading at a level equivalent to two and a half months into third grade by the program’s end.

Overall, Indianapolis student test scores showed the average student’s improvement equaled a jump ahead of about 2.3 months in reading and 2.4 months in math over the life of the program, Phalen said.

And the program was growing quickly.

In 2013, at its peak, a total of 2,415 Indianapolis kids in three school districts participated, and Phalen was even more ambitious. He told the Indianapolis Star he wanted it to serve 25,000 kids by 2014, including 10,000 in Indiana.

But in two years, things changed drastically.

Focus shifts to other states, charter school

In 2013, Phalen added a new dimension to his idea: building a charter school.

The broader goal was a network of Phalen Leadership Academy charter schools, and The Mind Trust, an education advocacy group, was again a key supporter. Phalen got start up aid from the city’s charter school incubator, which The Mind Trust also helped fund. The network will take over managing School 103 this fall in a first-of-its-kind partnership with IPS.

The Phalen Leadership Academy borrowed ideas from the summer program and built on it. But at the same time the school was taking shape, Summer Advantage began to shrink.

While enrollment has plummeted here, it remains steady in other cities around the country.

This summer, about 2,000 students participated in Colorado, Illinois, Alabama and New York. But it is no longer offered in Pike, IPS or other cities around the state, like Muncie and Elkhart, which the program also served briefly.

Money has been a big problem.

In the early years of the program, a key funding source were federal grants administered by the Indiana Department of Education.

For example, state records show Decatur Township received $977,051 in 2009 as part of a Reading First federal grant, which requires schools to take a scientific approach to reading instruction, according to Daniel Altman, a spokesman for state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Phalen said he asked Ritz’s team to continue support for the program, but apparently Summer Advantage did not apply for new funds. Altman said department records show no applications submitted on behalf of Summer Advantage during Ritz’s administration.

In 2013, Pike and IPS ended partnerships with the program.

Phalen thinks it’s no coincidence two key districts backed out as his new charter school took off.

“The grants ran out and then the two districts where we were serving the most kids ended their partnership with us because we applied to run a charter school,” Phalen said. “Those were 2,000 students who we were deeply connected to.”

But Pike Superintendent Nate Jones rejected the argument that politics was a factor. He said Pike cut ties simply because there wasn’t enough federal funding.

“If they hadn’t offered us that money, we would have never entered that partnership with him to begin with,”  Jones said.

Former IPS Superintendent Eugene White declined to comment.

‘A win-win scenario’ for Decatur, but will it hold up?

The program, which ended for the summer on Friday, survived this year. But its future in Indiana is unclear.

This year, The Indianapolis Foundation and the Summer Youth Program Fund raised about $175,000 collectively for Summer Advantage, said Roderick Wheeler, who oversees both grants for the Central Indiana Community Foundation. The program, which costs $1,400 per kid, was about $32,000 short of its goal Friday.

The Indianapolis Foundation helps fund about 80 summer programs, Wheeler said, but Summer Advantage is unique.

“There are very few – if any – summer programs that partner with school districts,” Wheeler said. “Summer Advantage is a vendor. What makes that helpful is nonprofit dollars coming alongside public dollars.”

CICF will continue to seek other partners and hopes to help Summer Advantage expand to serve 1,000 kids in Indianapolis over the next three years.

In Decatur, Superintendent Matthew Prusiecki said the program is good for the kids who participate.

Summer Advantage offers a mix of math and literacy instruction along with enrichment activities. Fridays are spent on extra-curricular opportunities, like field trips and guest speakers.

In Decatur, students spent the first three hours of each weekday in the classroom, which was led by a teacher and teaching assistant, followed by an hour of lunch and recess and two hours of art provided by Arts for Learning, a local nonprofit.

“It’s just a win-win scenario for us here in Decatur,” Prusiecki said. “As long as we can continue to work things out together — we have the demand as far as our students are concerned — there’s no reason not to continue Summer Advantage.”