Rising fourth-grader Camila Lora, 8, center, throws her arms in the air during a dance class. On the right is Yenifer Argueta, 9. Montgomery County has a new summer program that aims to helping narrow the county's persistent achievement gap. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

It was July-hot outside of Octavia Wolf’s classroom, but inside, 18 children were gathered on a rug around their teacher, who led them through a book about the life of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau. As Wolf posed questions, hands shot up.

Students talked about Cousteau’s early fascinations. His scuba gear. The fun he had doing flips underwater.

“He should stop doing tricks and start discovering stuff,” said Julianna Lopez, 9, stirring ripples of laughter and sparking a spontaneous discussion of the discoveries that can be made through play.

Designed to help students catch up and stave off “summer slide” — when children lose ground in academics while school is out — Wolf’s class at Sargent Shriver Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md., is part of an effort that goes beyond traditional summer school.

Fourth-graders listen as assistant teacher Blake Brooks reads “Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau” at Sargent Shriver Elementary School in Silver Spring. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

It blends math and literacy learning with field trips and activities such as theater, dance, art, technology, soccer, Legos and poetry. The program aims to help close the achievement gap that leaves many black and Hispanic students lagging on academic measures while also targeting the “opportunity gap” that leaves children from poorer families with less exposure to enriching summer experiences.

“Now I know I like poetry,” said Santos Arevalo, 8. “I never knew I liked poetry.”

More than 1,000 children from high-poverty schools in Montgomery County who fell short of benchmarks in math and reading are attending the five-week program. The students — rising third- and fourth-graders — say it’s a lot like their regular school, but more varied and more fun.

“They make math into games,” said 9-year-old Jairo Morales Umana, noting that sometimes math can be boring. He and others delighted in the summer’s field trips, including visits to a farm and museums. “We got to pretend like we were spies,” Jairo said of a trip to the International Spy Museum in the District.

The summer initiative, which plans to serve 4,200 children over four years, is supported through a public-private partnership that includes county government, the school system, the Norman and Ruth Rales Foundation and the nonprofit BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life). BELL, which has been involved in such work since 1992, runs the Montgomery program and also has one focused on summer learning loss in Washington, part of a joint effort with the YMCA.

Valeria Campos is all concentration as she works on a math problem at Sargent Shriver Elementary School in Silver Spring. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

“It is a real need for us,” said Montgomery County Council Member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), who led a push for a $750,000 appropriation for this year’s program.

School officials say the effort helps fill a void in summer programming for students at high-poverty schools as they head into the third and fourth grades, a critical age. They say academic benefits are a priority, but the other activities are important, too.

“A lot of our kids don’t have certain opportunities over the summer for enrichment, vacations, travel,” county Board of Education President Michael A. Durso said.

Damon Johnson, a regional director at BELL, said the summer effort can turn around the expected summer academic losses, spurring gains in learning while providing engaging experiences.

“We may unlock the next great composer or the next great author,” Johnson said.

Research shows that summer programs generally help ward off summer learning loss, said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Children from low-income families lose the most during summers, slipping in both math and reading while school is out, he said, while middle-class children tend to lose ground in math but not in reading.

Such summer losses clearly affect the achievement gap, he said: “Some people would argue that most of the gap happens when kids are out of school.”

Karl Alexander of Johns Hopkins University said research he and his colleagues did found that low-income first-graders were on average a half a grade behind benchmarks in reading comprehension — and that the gap widened as they aged because of summer learning loss. By the end of fifth grade, he said, they were on average three grades behind.

“A deficit of that magnitude doesn’t go away, and it has repercussions,” Alexander said, citing greater risks that students will drop out of high school and lower prospects for attending college.

In Montgomery’s new program, daily attendance has been strong, averaging more than 90 percent, said G. Leonard Starnes II, BELL’s director of program operations in the county.

Certified teachers and teaching assistants run the classes, with a ratio of two educators for every 20 students, he said. Students take a test as the program starts and ends, which helps to differentiate instruction and measure progress.

“I like it a lot,” said Asia Payne, 9, working at her desk as her class broke into small groups on a recent morning. “It’s going to teach me more for when I’m going into fourth grade, and when the teacher asks questions, I’ll just raise my hand and know the answer.”

In a math class, Alexys Madrid, 8, a rising third-grader, was working to solve a word problem that involved 12 markers. He settled on an answer quickly, then realized that he hadn’t quite grasped the concept.

He tried another approach, finding that the solution involved six packs of two markers each, rather than two packs of six markers each.

“They’re really different,” he said triumphantly.

As an afternoon class gathered, Brandon McCaskill was teaching students about abstract art and realism. The children had already studied their own photos to create realistic portraits of themselves.

Now they were “painting from the heart” on white paper banners, “freestyling,” as McCaskill said.

Some children did bold splashes of color.

Ryan Velasquez, 9, created the Mexican flag.

Britiney Fuentes, 9, formed a pink heart. Then, with yellow paint on one hand and blue on the other, she rubbed them together.

“I made green!” she said.

In Wolf’s reading class, the Cousteau book — “Manfish,” by Jennifer Berne — elicited similar enthusiasm. Teacher’s assistant Blake Brooks read each page aloud to the class, while Wolf led a discussion of the text.

The class talked about different kinds of marine life, the movies Cousteau made about his explorations and the ocean pollution that became his concern.

Wolf asked students to write a list of 10 questions, a starting point for research they would do with their Chromebook laptop computers. The children sat at desks arranged in small groups.

In Julianna’s group, the children talked about how they had not known about so many kinds of fish. The book described camouflaged scorpion fish and checkerboard fish and “dorados” that glowed like emeralds or rubies.

Bryan Fernandez, 9, was surprised to see so many pointy-looking fish.

Jairo nodded.

“I did not know there were puffer fish!” he said.