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Summer School With No Walls Keeps Kids Engaged, Active

Emily Cohen
Pam Gebbie demonstrates a squat that the students will mimic when they hear words that rhyme during a game to help the students learn rhyming words.

The mention of summer school might conjure images of students stuck inside on beautiful days and kids upset at their parents for forcing them to attend.

But there's a summer program that's the opposite of that — and it's outdoors.

Families are already at the community pool, splashing and squealing in the water before 9 a.m.

Outside the fence, 6- and 7-year-olds stand in a circle, playing a rhyming game outside a picnic pavilion at the Boyertown Community Park in Berks County.

"Listen to the sounds. Hat, cat. So, if you hear them rhyme like that, you go down and back up," said instructor Pam Gebbie.

Although the 10 youngsters are outside among the trees, they're not at camp — they're students at a summer reading program.

Called Teachers in the Parks, it focuses on preventing the "summer slide."

"The summer slide is a well-researched phenomenon where children lose roughly seven weeks every summer," said Matt Hathaway, founder of the program. "So it takes them until about October, November to get back to the levels they were in June. And, if we can stop the summer slide, we can actually add about 25 percent of instruction."

The fourth-grade teacher in Exeter Township School District started the program 13 years ago with six students.

It served more than 450 kids in kindergarten through sixth grade in Berks County this summer.

'Down to the basics'

Hathaway said meeting outdoors costs 75 percent less than a traditional program.

"It's very expensive to try to bring children into schools," he said. "It's very expensive to run facilities and buildings. If you can get down to the basics — a teacher, a blanket, in any setting where they are naturally — that's what our organization is trying to do."

The program is strictly academic and run by certified teachers.

With an outdoor classroom, Hathaway says they've only had to cancel one class in a decade due to weather — mainly by holding classes in the morning to miss peak heat and requiring every site to have a shelter from rain.

The program is supported by the Exeter Community Education Foundation.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education helped the program get a $100,000 federal grant this year so low-income children can attend for free.

It's $75 for the summer for grades kindergarten through second and $90 for third- and fourth-graders. It costs $150 per student to run the program.

The program also expanded this summer to include students from Boyertown School District, which straddles Berks and Montgomery counties.

Due to budget changes, the district's summer learning program was cut. With the help of the Boyertown Education Foundation and the local United Way, the district was able to offer Teachers in the Parks.

Kids attend twice a week for two hours.

Great outdoors provides living lessons

Teacher Greg Moll reads to third- and fourth-grade students under the park's bandshell. The 8- and 9-year-olds sit on blankets and eat snacks while listening.

The older group's topic is weather.

Eight-year-old Brody likes writing in his journal, reacting to questions, like "What would you do if it rains Jell-O?

He'll be a third-grader in the fall, and he said he didn't know what hail was until he finished reading a book about it.

"It's like tiny ice. And then the biggest one inside the world was as big as a pumpkin," he said.

Gavyn's going into fourth grade. The 9-year-old likes everything about the program, including the reading and writing.

"It's very fun, like we do like fun stuff," he said. "We play games and stuff."

A group of younger kids is focusing on bugs. They go on walks to look for insects, which 7-year old Josie said is fun.

"I like to learn to about ladybugs," she said, adding that she reads about ladybugs at home.

Josie's mom, Deborah DePolo, picks her daughter up, near the playground.

She said the program has encouraged Josie, who is going into second grade.

"She's doing it on her own," she said. "She's picking up the books and she likes to read them too. We have a pet bunny ... she likes to pick the books up and read them to the bunny, so she's taking more of her own initiative to do it."

DePolo says it's also give the duo some mother-daughter time.

"It gives us a bonding chance on the car ride back of 'what'd you guys learned today?' Sometimes we'll stay afterwards and play and that kind of stuff," she said.

It's also allowing Josie to teach the rest of the family, DePolo notes.

"Josie is bringing the stuff she's learned and sharing it with the family, especially when they see butterflies while at her brothers' baseball practice."

Gebbie, a first-grade teacher in the Boyertown School District, says teaching out in the great wide open can be challenging.

"There's a lot of people walking their dogs and people coming with their kids just to play at the playgrounds," she said. "So there's definitely different distractions, but I think that kids get used to the distractions, and I think they enjoy coming to the park."

She says it's been a great experience for the kids and has a more flexible approach.

"They're not expected to follow as strict rules as in the classroom," Gebbie said of her students. "I'm not having them walk in a straight line to go someplace. They're able to run from place to place, and we do activities throughout the day that lets them get their fidgets out."

Connecting the dots, connecting with kids

The kindergarten through second-grade students sit at picnic tables under the pavilion. They are connecting the dots to create a butterfly and coloring their picture.

Gebbie brought her own creativity to the curriculum, something teachers are encouraged to do.

"Some of my students are just finishing up kindergarten and are not even aware of all the letters of the alphabet yet," Gebbie said. "So we did a connect the dots with butterflies today where they had to find the letters of the alphabet and connect them in order. So something like that I just pulled from my classroom that I remembered I had and thought I could incorporate it with what we're doing here."

Assessment shows the program's been able to maintain kids' reading levels in kindergarten through fourth grades, and children report they start the school year with more confidence.

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, NewsWorks