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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f7707e000090.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

Barriers May Keep Kids from Summer Enrichment Programs

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA

For so many kids, the beginning of summer holds promise of weeks and weeks of doing absolutely nothing, or of sitting around and watching TV or playing video games all day.

Many kids will have such plans thwarted by parents who will send them to one or several summer programs. That’s probably not a bad thing — there is a growing body of research that suggests letting kids do nothing but watch TV and play video games all summer could set back their academic growth.

According to Eddie Willson, director of Pittsburgh’s Summer Dreamer’s Academy, there are some families who simply don’t have the means to send their kids to camps and summer programs, some of which can run hundreds of dollars.

“A child with resources has the ability to go to the Science Center, to go to the library, go to camp, do any number of things and have the access to learning that is required to keep the knowledge they gained over the year, or to gain in knowledge over the summer,” Willson said.

Some camps and programs do offer scholarships, but space can be limited.

Nationwide Push for Access

The effort to include all children in summer activities is being made nationwide. The National Summer Learning Academy, based in Baltimore, is one organization working to encourage and support programs that offer educational and fun activities for kids who may not otherwise be able to afford them.

“There’s been a recent more concerted effort to create programs that allow them to participate and attend in camp-like atmosphere with academic rigor mixed in, and creating other options, whether it’s working with libraries or using other technologies to make sure there are not only opportunities, but encouragement to learn during the summer and stay engaged,” said NSLA CEO Gary Huggins.  

You can’t just open up a school building and let kids hang out there with nothing to do, or make it a school-like atmosphere. That can turn kids off of summer learning completely and makes it unlikely that they’ll return day after day.

In Pittsburgh, programs like the Summer Dreamer’s Academy offer activities such as fencing, swimming and art programs aimed at fostering learning in a fun and creative way, but they also offer academic programs cloaked in fun.

“If we run a great, effective teaching program and we don’t attract kids and make them want to come, then we’ve not accomplished anything," Huggins said. "That’s part of it, but another part of it is — summer can be a space where we can innovate and teach and learn in different ways that can affect how we do school. So much of the school year is locked into schedules and testing.”

For many school systems or youth organizations, summer programs have been treated as a luxury or something to set up only if extra funds are available. But Huggins said learning programs outside of schools are a critical part of the education reform puzzle that is not being addressed.

“What we need to move toward, and we see a sort of growing trend in this way in some districts, is to look at this as part of our academic bottom line,” Huggins said. "We’re not going to hit the targets we’re accountable for, and we’re not going to close achievement gaps, we’re not going to get students college-ready if we’re not addressing summer effectively as part of our overall academic plan.”

Kids Affecting Change

The issue of access to summer programs has also grabbed the attention of a senior at The Ellis School, an all-girls K-12 school in Pittsburgh. Chelsea Canedy is starting Girls Bridging Communities, a one-week robotics camp for girls that is free.

“We really want a variety of socio-economic statuses coming to this camp, we don’t want it just to be for those who can afford to pay $200 for a week camp, we want it to be for everyone,” she said.

Canedy wanted to start a camp for low-income girls after a school project in which she learned that the achievement gap has roots in the socio-economic status of children.

“I think it’s especially important for low-income girls to have this camp because they may not have a one-on-one intimate learning experience like this because they might just never be exposed to it in their normal school curricula,” she said.  

Ellis School teacher and advisor to the camp, Lisa Abel-Palmieri said this camp as well as another at Carnegie Mellon University offers girls a free or low-cost camp experience. But as Palmieri hears from parents and other organizers, it becomes clear there are still access issues, most notably figuring out how to get the girls to and from camp each day.

“This is what Chelsea told me from the beginning and I didn’t get that — I was like, ‘How hard can it be to come up here? It’s a free camp!’" Palmieri said, "but every single person who’s called me on the phone to ask about it has said, ‘Well I don’t know how I’m going to get my daughter there.’” 

The camp is seeking grant funding to provide busing, and many area camps do offer free transportation, as well as breakfast and lunch or healthy snacks. The other piece of the puzzle is awareness, making sure parents know that there are options out there for their children that won’t break the bank. To that end, there are numerous outreach programs in schools to let kids know what is going on in the summer.

Hive Days of Summer

One such effort is Hive Pittsburgh, which is supported by the Sprout Fund and seeks to create opportunities for connected learning across all income levels. According to Ryan Coon, program officer for the Sprout Fund, the programs aren’t limited to any specific income level or demographic.  

“It’s about making sure there is open, equitable access to powerful learning opportunities that exist in the region and making them more prevalent and frequent,” he said.

Coon said sometime, making sure kids have opportunities means taking programs to them, rather than the other way around. Such is the case with the Children Museum’s Make Shop, which Coon described as a creative, hands-on learning tool for children. But he said not everyone can get to the museum or pay admission.

“We’re working to support a mobile version of that,” Coon said, “or supporting programs that can go to where the youth are, set up in an accessible place and still deliver the quality programming you would find in a place that would charge admission.”

In the Pittsburgh region, summer programs and camps are not only for those with means, and there are numerous opportunities for all income levels.

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