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In the Pittsburgh Region, Summer Learning Opportunities Abound

For many, summer as a kid conjures images of long rides in the back of the family sedan, co-ed sports at the local YMCA camp or hours spent on the couch watching TV. These kind of summer experiences still exist, but an array of programs around Pittsburgh are opening the eyes and minds of youth of all ages.

Some of those students will be attending Summer Dreamers Academy. The camp, put on by Pittsburgh Public Schools, packs its itinerary with academics and activities. Summer Dreamers has replaced summer school.

“We decided to throw out remedial, punitive summer school and create a summer camp that’s just like the camp that our kids more affluent peers in the suburbs spend hundreds of dollars to go to, only our kids get to go for free,” said Eddie Willson, the district’s director of operations for student support.

Willson said traditional summer school wasn’t working. Most kids never showed up, but now thousands of elementary and middle school students apply for the few thousand spots available for the district’s summer camp.

“We are very clear that we are strong on academics," he said. "We have a 90-minute math block and a 90-minute reading block that infuse a lot of the same things our students learn during the school year, but they do so in a fun way.”

The day begins when students get off the school bus at one of the five sites around the city. Willson put himself in the shoes of a student attending camp.

“There is a line of camp coordinators and teachers to greet me as I get off the bus to give me high fives and tell me they’re excited to see me for the day,” Willson said. “I get free breakfast, and I move straight into an all camp meeting where I do chants and cheers and I get excited and I celebrate something that I learned from the day before. I do dance competitions and someone gets the spirit stick.”

Students then head into their academic blocks. In the afternoon campers might learn how to play water polo, fence or swim before going home. Willson said best practices show learning happens when students get a healthy dose of math and reading as well as enrichment activities.

Unstructured time is the enemy. And it’s forgettable.

“I definitely think that summer camp gives you the experience that can be remembered and become part of your life,” Willson said.

Lights, Camera, Learning

If summer camp leaves an indelible mark on childhood, a program across town asks youth to put those stories on film.

The OneminutesJr. program at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has teenage students spend a week story boarding, filming, editing and producing a one-minute movie. The movie can be fictional, but many of the teens who participate choose to explore parts of their lives that are familiar to them and their peers.

JuWanda Thermond heads the program and said it is a part of an international competition with students around the globe.

That means Pittsburgh students are going up against teens in places like Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Tripoli, Libya; and Lahore, Pakistan. Professional videographers fly in from New York and Amsterdam to show the Pittsburgh students how to tell their story in images. Students start by mapping out their ideas, then they let the cameras roll.

“So we literally get in a van, and drive around the city of Pittsburgh — take lots of pictures and video of different things,” Thurmond said. “Then they spend a good portion of that week editing that, learning how to add sound and different types of graphics and all sorts of fun things.”

Thurmond said the camp ends with a walk down the red carpet and a movie premiere for family and friends.

“I hope that they first just learn this skill of just taking good pictures or telling a story through film," she said. "But more importantly I think it gives them this opportunity to really speak what’s on their heart and minds, so they can express themselves.”

Summer of Growth

In Braddock, another group of teens will be working hard on a different sort of summer project. Instead of using cutting edge video and editing equipment, they will be working with dirt: planting seeds, tending crops, harvesting and selling the produce at market.

Grow Pittsburgh spearheads the Urban Farmers in Training program, where students from the Mon Valley help operate a 1.5 acre farm. Jake Seltman oversees Education Programing and explained that some of the teens may start the program having never set foot in a garden. Seltman said they wrap up the program with a level of expertise.

“Everything they’re doing has to be done," he said. "If they weren’t there the farm wouldn’t be thriving the way that it does. One day it might be that they’re just harvesting, making sure the produce looks good. But other days it might be weeding, or they might be turning the compost for an hour, so some of the jobs are more glorious than others.”

Seltman said collaboration and connectivity are central to the Urban Farmer Training program. Whether students are cooking, planting or weeding, they’re doing it together.

At the farm stand in Braddock, the student farmers sell everything from raspberries to eggplant to tomatoes. Seltman said they’re not trying to turn all of their teens into farmers.

“So some may end up going into business because they love the farm stand aspect of it, while others may really enjoy growing food and then they go into their community and start their own community garden," he said. "Others might get interested in the food industry and might want to be a chef."

Training for the Work World

From the farm field to the corporate boardroom, another kind of learning will take place in downtown Pittsburgh. Big companies like BNY Mellon, UPMC and PNC will take on students from Allegheny County for the summer to introduce them to a professional work environment.

The Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board curates the Work Ready Pittsburgh internship program. Executive Director Stefani Pashman said many people find summer jobs through family connections, but many of the teens in their program don’t have that kind of inside track.

For six weeks dozens of students set their alarms, get on the bus and head to the office to learn how to work in a corporate setting.

“If you’re given a project how do you begin that project? What are the deliverables? What is the time frame? How to complete that task. And how to engage in a professional environment is the biggest thing we’re trying to get out of this,” Pashman said. “It’s also about the companies understanding the talent pool that’s available to them, and to see a range of youth who they may not get the opportunity to see through day to day recruiting efforts.”

While it may be a given for some teenagers that they’ll end up working for a corporation in a big city, Pashman said the idea can be novel for their participants.

“These are youth who no one has essentially said to them, 'you can be anything you want to be, you can have a job in a big high rise downtown in Pittsburgh. And you can go to college and be whatever you want,'” she said.

Whether students are editing video, harvesting tomatoes or focusing on math and reading, the Pittsburgh region is packed with all kinds of learning experiences that will make the summer worth remembering.