Clad in light-colored shirt and shorts, Maria Garcia planted herself on the cool pavement to decorate an electric yellow T-shirt using cotton swabs and white paint.
In summers past, 12-year-old Maria whiled away the dog days in front of the TV. This year she is enrolled in an art class at After School University, a program hosted by Fresno State that provides local kids with a free one-month day camp each summer.
"We go to different classes and we just have fun," Maria said.
There are no s'mores or lazy afternoons by the lake, but the kids spend mornings improving their algebra, remixing songs on laptops and launching rockets they create during a tech and science course.
It's all organized to bump up underprivileged students' critical thinking skills and plug the learning leak that's become typical after months away from the classroom. And it's not just remedial education: Enrollees make robots out of Legos, dissect frogs and design fashion.
"There's a slide in summer learning," said Eric Mayu, public relations manager and site liaison for The California Teaching Fellows Foundation, a teacher preparation organization that runs ASU.
"So being able to bridge that gap by getting plugged into these high-level programs helps them to level off in the sense that they are not on the educational slide."
The program was established in 2009 through a partnership between Fresno State, CTFF and Fresno Unified School District. It's set up more like camp than summer school, which in Fresno has conventionally targeted underperforming students who need to catch up.
Glenn Starkweather, director of extended learning at Fresno Unified, said about 5,420 middle and elementary school students attending the district's traditional summer school program are largely there to recover credits they lost during the regular school session.
The district is just beginning to introduce enrichment opportunities, he said, like a business entrepreneurship camp and a math program called Ramp-Up to Algebra, both targeted at middle-schoolers.
That's why ASU is helping fill the gap, said ASU board member Gonzalo Suarez.
ASU's 16 buses deliver 1,000 elementary and middle schoolers from their homes across the city to the Fresno State campus daily. Just under 40% of the students hail from southwest and southeast Fresno, and more than 85% come from a low-income family.
Many of the students have never stepped outside their own neighborhood, Suarez said, let alone the metro area.
"They've never seen this campus," he said. "So, we talk about what Fresno State is. But our kids don't know, they only recognize the bulldog because of the gang."
ASU is open to scholars of all learning levels. A $90,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente Medical Center supported this year's session, but the camp also gets state and federal funds, donations and special agency grants, including one from NASA.
And the program mimics the life of a university student: Kids choose their own classes from a set of "colleges," and follow instructions from "professors" — Fresno State student teachers employed by ASU during summer vacation.
Middle school teens take field trips to other universities, including the University of California at Los Angeles and Stanford University, on Fridays, Suarez said, in an effort to steer the soon-to-be high schoolers toward higher education early on.
The collegiate lifestyle becomes more familiar to the kids — many who were once dubious about their shot at a college acceptance letter.
"It's no longer just camp," Suarez said. "They learn leadership, goal setting and what the UC system is."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.