It was one of those rare Bakersfield summer days when the heat wasn't in fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk range.
Normally children would have been playing outside in the mild weather. Instead, hundreds of Bakersfield City School District youngsters were huddled in groups at school cafeterias. Some wrote in journals. Others did math exercises. Still others worked on laptops.
Monday was the first day of operation for the Bakersfield City School District's Summer Learning Center program, a new initiative aimed at battling summer brain drain.
At the end of the 2012-13 school year, all of the district's roughly 26,000 children in kindergarten through seventh grade were given a packet of homework and activities to complete over the summer.
The finished packets are to be returned when school resumes in August. They can do the work at home, or they can drop in at their convenience at any one of 10 summer learning centers to get help from certified teachers, even if the children don't speak English. Every site has at least one staff member who speaks Spanish.
Teachers stamp a "Summer Adventure Passport Booklet" each time an assignment is completed, and tutor students if they need help.
The booklet is part of a larger packet that includes flash cards, work sheets, essay assignments and a reading program. Assignments are grade-specific and designed to build toward the coming school year.
The homework is completely voluntary, but parent Lina Valencia liked the idea so much that she brought all three of her children and one of their friends first thing Monday morning when the Harris Elementary School center opened.
"I love that they can have some educational activities over the summer instead of just watching cartoons and playing Wii and Nintendo," she said. "And it's great that parents can come and be a part of what they're learning so we know where they're at and what they're supposed to know going into the next grade level."
Priscilla Ruiz took four children to Harris from the home-based day care where she works.
"I think it's wonderful to have this opportunity to keep the kids from falling behind in school," she said. "It's a great way to make sure everything they've learned stays with them over the summer."
Oh, and free breakfast, to boot. Through a separate Summer Meals program, breakfast is available to any child age 2 to 18 at no cost, even if they aren't Summer Learning Center participants and don't live in the district.
Valencia's entourage was a little dubious about the center to start, but a couple of hours into the first day, the program had won them over.
"I thought it was going to be boring," said 9-year-old Devon Valencia. "But it's kind of fun because we have a lot of activities to do."
His 8-year-old companion, Ruben Sanchez, nodded enthusiastically.
"I read a story and answered some questions about it," he said. "And they have computers."
Indeed, the Kern County District Attorney's Office donated old computers to BCSD after upgrading its technology. There are about 50 laptops disbursed at the 10 centers.
Students are using them to play learning games, visit educational websites and take "virtual field trips."
Typically low-income families can't afford to enroll children in summer camp or take summer vacations, so the district came up with a bunch of URLs for virtual trips to places such as Hearst Castle and the White House, said Nancy Olcott, BCSD's director of curriculum and standards. The booklet also has two pages of suggestions for real family road trips that are a close drive from Bakersfield.
The destinations include museums, state parks and some spooky ghost towns and mining camps.
It's costing the district about $120,000 to operate the Summer Learning Centers, which pays for teacher salaries, custodial support, supplies and printing costs. The money is coming from the BCSD general fund, said spokesman Steve Gabbitas.
It's a good investment, Olcott said, because studies have consistently shown that children who don't participate in enrichment activities over the summer fall behind their peers who do a little bit every year, and over time it adds up.
"By the time they get to about fifth or sixth grade, there can be as much as two to two-and-a-half years' difference between them in their experience and the learning gaps, so as much as we can offer these students, we do," she said.
Teacher Jennifer Davis is working at the Harris Elementary School Summer Learning Center. She estimates she spends at least the first month of every school year reviewing material her class forgot over the previous few months.
"I would rather spend that first month on new material and new adventures," she said.
If early indications are any guide, students love the program.
"We had a few who were frowning when they came in, but especially when they discovered there were computers and virtual field trips, they were really excited," Davis said.
There are many school districts in California that offer some degree of academic enrichment in conjunction with the Summer Meals program, but the state doesn't track how many or exactly what they offer, said Tina Jung, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.
The state superintendent of schools encourages such programs, Jung added, because the combination of summer learning and healthy eating is extremely important.
"For many children, the only nutritious food they get is at school, so over the summer they aren't getting the nutrition they need for their brains to grow and their bodies to develop, and that puts them at a disadvantage when they come back in the fall," Jung said.
Locally, the BCSD program seems to be unique. A lot of Kern County school districts cut or reduced their summer offerings during the recession, when property tax and state funding income dropped.
Most local districts are down to services only for niche populations. There's traditional summer school here and there for students who are not performing at grade level or who are learning English. Panama-Buena Vista and Fruitvale school districts offer extended school years for special-education students. Standard School District and several others devote summer resources to getting very young children ready for kindergarten.
But the BCSD program may be the only one in Kern County available to all students free of charge, and already it's getting attention from educators interested in using it as a model. A San Diego area district recently requested a summer packet to see what's in it.
It's too early to say how many BCSD families are taking advantage of the optional program, but Olcott said the early traffic at each site was running between 20 and 40 students.
There are incentives to encourage participation. Schools with the largest numbers of completed packets returned in the fall will be eligible for prizes.
Individual students can get prizes, too, including free books and tickets to the Kern County Fair.
Holly Gonzales, who is teaching at the Evergreen Elementary School site, was pleased with the turnout at her school.
"Learning really needs to continue over the summer," she said. "It's so critical, and the kids really want to be here. They're having fun, and it's so cute. That girl over there is reading about how to make chocolate."