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For at-risk kids, summer programs seek to level opportunity gaps

Scholars sing to start the day at Play On Purpose's Summer Camp
Jonna McKone

Every parent faces challenges finding constructive opportunities for their children in the summer while school’s out. But that process can be even more difficult for parents who can’t afford day camps.  

On a hot, August morning, about 75 kids play, sing and chat in the cafeteria of ConneXions, a public charter school in the Mondawmin neighborhood of West Baltimore. Play on Purpose (POP) runs a free summer program here that includes curriculum through the Freedom School, a program of the Children’s Defense Fund. Freedom Schools teach culturally relevant reading and local African American history at over 12,000 sites around the nation to, in part, stem the tide of summer learning loss.

At POP, the day starts with songs to get students energized and verbalizing attitudes and goals of the day. In a big group, students chant, “all I do, is read, read, read. If you read, put your hands in the air let them stay there.”

Before the day is over the scholars will read books that they can take home, play sports like flag football or cheerleading, and they’ll learn about leadership and social justice. They also go on field trips to local colleges.

Rashida Ford, a Baltimore City middle school teacher who is CEO and Director of POP, says she developed the program to encourage athletes and scholars to lead in all aspects of their lives.

“It seems to be we place our kids in boxes,” says Ford, a former athlete herself. “In a lot of ways I’ve seen students who are amazing athletes but struggle in the classroom. I’ve seen amazing scholars in the classroom that don’t have social skills and don’t have any grit outside of the classroom.”

Taylor Evans is going into 8th grade at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. She says she loves to play basketball, but was ineligible because her grades were too low. Then she found a book at the camp that resonated with her.

“These three friends…they overcome amazing hurdles in their life. At first they thought they would always stay in the street and never do anything good for theirself,” she explains.  “But their pack of friendship encouraged each other to go to college and become doctors.”

The book has encouraged her to handle disputes in school better, become an example to other students and simply enjoy reading more.  “It helps me learn that reading is actually good for the mind, and is good for your spirit: to calm down and read,” Evans explains.

Play on Purpose is one of 327 free or low cost summer programs partially funded by the City, non-profits and foundations. In recent years the Anne E. Casey Foundation, The Family League, the Weinberg Foundation and other non-profits have developed one application to make it easier for summer programsto apply for money and to more intentionally coordinate where they are directing grant money.

But the funding doesn’t nearly meet the need, says Johnathan Rondeau, president and CEO of the Family League, which helps fund POP. He says there are 132,000 students under 18 in the city and affordable, high-quality programs serve only a quarter of that number.

“Middle or upper middle class kids are getting access to things that their parents are paying for” like being “able to go to museums, getting music lessons [and] being in engaged in fee for service summer programs,” he says. But the free opportunities “available for all kids here in Baltimore isn’t at the level of the kids who need it.”

Although the number of camps for low-income kids has increased, advocates and instructors say families still don’t sign up for a number of reasons. They don’t know the programs exist, or for some it’s too hard to get their children there, or they’re worried about safety. Still, other programs have waiting lists.

But it’s clear these programs are valuable to kids. Jalen McLean, a rising 7th grader, who goes to POP, says without a camp “I would sleep later and just play videogames.” Another POP camper says she would be at home watching her little sisters.

For kids who aren’t signed up for any sort of program, there’s always one of the city’s pools or recreation centers.  David Stewart, a 19-year-old a pool operator at William McAbee Park in Sandtown says many of the kids who come to the pool live in the neighborhood and a lot of them take advantage of free lunches the park offers.

“They always come, they know, they ask for the lunch, we give them lunch, juice and milk,” he explains.

It’s one of dozens of sites around Baltimore that offers meals kids can walk in and grab without signing up.  Often parks and pools are filling in the gap for kids who are not enrolled in camp.

You can learn more about the summer programs available in Baltimore here