Chancellor Dennis Walcott asks some elementary school students questions about the maps they were making of New York City and the Bronx.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott asked elementary school students questions about the maps they were making of New York City and the Bronx.

This morning, after the class of rising fourth-graders at P.S. 211 established what they want to know about the Bronx, they divided into four different groups to come up with projects that would help teach them. One group wanted to know what animals live in the Bronx, so they decided to create a magazine about wildlife. Another group wanted to know what some of the most famous restaurants are in the Bronx, so they’re creating a menu for their own Arthur Avenue eatery.

Their project-based learning is the hallmark of the Department of Education’s Summer Quest program, which is designed to prevent students from losing ground over the summer. It differs from regular summer school, which is geared toward helping students pass state math and reading exams, because it enrolls students who struggle but are not the lowest-performing, a rarity among city-funded summer programs.

Summer Quest, which is part of Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s focus on middle schools, launched last year with 1,120 elementary and middle school students in 12 schools and includes 1,800 students this year. Community-based organizations including the Children’s Aid Society, Building Educated Leaders for Life, and Good Shepherd Services have partnered with 11 South Bronx schools to provide staff and support services for five-week, nine-hour-a-day program.

At P.S. 211, which Chancellor Dennis Walcott toured Thursday morning, the theme for all Summer Quest learning is “Our New York City.” Students in different classrooms drew maps of the Bronx and its landmarks, sketched and shared objects that were significant to their cultures, learned to cook a vegetable frittata, and practiced a choreographed dance routine — which Walcott enthusiastically joined.

“It’s more fun than regular school. All you do is work all day and you get lunch for an hour and that’s it,” said Justin Ricks, a rising fourth-grader. “Here, you play around … have work for three hours in the morning, then have fun the rest of the day.” He said he was especially excited for a project in which his class would build its own New York City out of boxes.

This year Summer Quest’s budget is $4.5 million, with $2.5 million raised privately by the Fund for Public Schools and $2 million from the city, which includes out-of-school-time funding. The DOE also partnered with the Department of Youth and Community Development to launch the project.

In its first year, Summer Quest targeted students who barely passed state exams, but this year, with test scores expected to fall because of the state’s new Common Core standards, the program also includes students who failed. Principal Betty Gonzalez-Soto of P.S. 211 said about 30 percent of her students in Summer Quest didn’t pass the state test; for Venessa Singleton, principal of P.S. 300, that figure was about 22 percent. She added that students who did Summer Quest last year made tremendous academic gains and started the school year off better prepared.

There are lessons to learn from summer programs like Summer Quest that could shape the U.S. Department of Education’s redesign of schools, said Michael Robbins, senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. DOE.

“This is learning that’s not just sitting in a classroom — it’s connecting students with each other, with their communities, and with their interests,” said Robbins, who also planned to visit other city summer programs including ones operated by the HIVE NYC Learning Network and The After-School Corporation.

Check out the video below to see Walcott practice his ballet moves with students at P.S. 211 today.