When the school year comes to an end and things heat up, the summer months look different for everyone. Some kids shoot hoops at basketball camp while others sit by the pool or earn some money at a summer job.
Millions of black children are enrolled in summer camps each summer, with participation increasing steadily since 2008. And a trend among Black parents is choosing programs that engage their children in learning and keep them from losing academic ground during recess.
When she started DC-based Kids & Culture Camp over a decade ago, Jania Otey created a cure for a problem she saw. Otey, who has been homeschooling her children all her life, was looking for an all-encompassing summer program. She was “disappointed with the offerings.”
“The camps had a very unique focus,” she says. “Actually, I wanted something more for my children. In particular, I wanted a camp that encompassed many different aspects that focused on enrichment, but also a large part of the culture that you wouldn’t get in a traditional school setting.”
Not too far away in Richmond, Virginia, Angela Patton was on a similar mission. She walked her neighborhood promoting her Camp Diva Leadership Academy, which focused on helping girls get out of the house and learn how to use their voice.
“What struck me was the lack of programming that would appeal to me [girls], and other people joined me,” says Patton. “They started to see that young girls needed a space of their own.”
More and more parents are choosing educational and skills-based summer camps
From Black Girls Code to NASA-sponsored space camps, educational and skills-based summer programs are growing in popularity. The impetus comes from research on summer learning losses, particularly the impact on low-income children, and how engaging in summer learning can help children move forward. Also, during this phase of the pandemic, families are yearning for additional social and learning opportunities.
“It’s a combination of different things,” says Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance. “The idea is that summer can be fun and you can learn at the same time.”
Another boost comes from the American Rescue Plan, which provides special funding for summer learning and enrichment.
“We’ve been to this amazing place where the money is actually there to help more children,” Grant says.
The pandemic also played a role in Black parents’ interest in continuing to study during the summer months. Going back and forth between virtual and in-person learning has been particularly difficult for people of color, Otey says.
“Parents are trying to figure out how to fill in the gaps and make up for areas where their children haven’t learned what they wanted them to during the traditional school year,” says Otey.
Echoing Otey’s sentiments, David Park, senior vice president of strategy and communications at Learning Heroes, said parents and guardians realize their child may need additional support in the wake of the pandemic.
“While I don’t feel like parents are that focused on tutoring or anything official right now, they are looking at summer camps and other learning environments like this to provide their child with the social, emotional and academic support they need.” we now more than ever,” says Park.
At both Camp Diva and Kids & Culture, campers are exposed to a variety of topics that don’t get much attention – if any – in the regular classroom. Kids & Culture teaches African drumming, chess and the geography, history and sights of different countries. Tailored exclusively to black girls, Camp Diva teaches young women how to recognize trauma and obstacles and how to use their voice to speak up for themselves and others.
“There’s this huge opportunity not only to learn, but for kids to explore some passions in a way that they might not be able to do during the traditional school day,” says Grant.
Black parents seek enriching summertime opportunities for their children
Black families have been increasingly enrolling children in summer programs since 2008, according to a study by the Afterschool Alliance. As of 2019, 50% of Black families reported having at least one child involved in the summer program, which is higher than the national average.
27% of Black parents ranked among their top concerns for their children as of early 2021, worrying that their children might lose motivation or interest in learning, according to Learning Heroes’ Out-of-School Time Programs report, which was commissioned by the Wallace Foundation. And Black parents said that developing a specific skill is one of their top three priorities when determining a summer program for their child, with 81% citing it as important. In addition, 80% want their children to have new experiences that will open them up to new knowledge and areas of interest, and 70% said the program should motivate their child and inspire them to learn.
Afterschool Alliance found similar results. In their survey of Black parents, 63% of respondents said life-skills opportunities were among their top priorities for summer programs, and 60% wanted the program to keep their child from losing academic ground during the school holidays. The poll results showed that black parents had higher expectations for summer programs than white parents in most categories.
Park says the trend has been evident over the past six years of research, adding that black and Hispanic parents truly believe in the power of education.
“What really struck our research was how important it is, especially for black parents, to make sure their children are getting the academic support they really need,” says Park. “We’re also seeing a higher percentage of Black parents who say they are exploring opportunities for academic support because they understand their child may have lost some of the academic skills they need to be prepared for in the next grade.”
Despite the surge in summer camp attendance, however, there is still significant unmet demand, as 35% of black families — 2.3 million children in all — say they would enroll their children in a program if one were available to them. Cost was the top reason black parents didn’t enroll their children in summer programs, with 36% saying it was too expensive. This was followed by location and transport options.
Black kids need these spaces
Depending on the camp and activities, black children learn different lessons during the summer months. Whether it’s logic, advocacy, or professional development, these lifelong skills are taught in a fun, engaging, and tangible way that a classroom doesn’t always provide.
At Kids & Culture, Otey remembers campers who took their culture classes to work at the United Nations.
“They take what they’ve learned and apply it in the future,” says Otey. “We don’t want it to be just a one-time thing, we want to broaden their skill base.”
Camp Diva works to empower black girls by teaching them not to accept the way black girls and women have traditionally been treated: grown up, sexualized and abused.
“It allows them to amplify their voices. It gives them more ownership,” says Patton. “They see themselves and not only can they own what we build, they can own their blackness, their voice, their responsibility, their culture.”
Whether through day trips, speakers, counselors, or other activities, children open doors to futures that children may never have thought of. Often, parents prepare their children to take jobs similar to the ones they worked, Patton says. If they don’t know the future of work, how can they pass that knowledge on to their children?
“Being exposed to all of this opens up new avenues for them,” Grant says. “It’s not just the academic piece, it opens a window to real jobs that are needed in our economy and gives kids the beginning of the skills to see themselves in those jobs.”
These programs fill in gaps parents can’t always see and allow them to fill in gaps they may not have the skills or bandwidth to fill. Additionally, doing these activities outside of school gives children the freedom to explore without the pressure of grades.
“Putting things in practical perspective, making them real and relevant, is so much fun and a great way to learn,” says Grant. “And if they don’t work, that’s part of the learning experience.”
“I’m here every summer”
Even after several years – and a lot of work – organizing their summer programs, Patton and Otey still look forward to their children’s groups getting together every year.
Now, in the midst of her One Million Reasons campaign, Patton has been reflecting on what keeps her coming back every summer. Her main reason is the camp’s namesake: her friend’s daughter, Diva, who died at the age of 5 after an accident involving a firearm found at a relative’s house. As increasing violence and mental health issues affect people across the country, Patton says, “Young people need us to support them and guide them more, meet them and work with them and work with them.”
“I need to keep Diva’s spirit alive through what Diva missed by losing her so early. I have an opportunity to give it to another girl,” says Patton. “I’m looking forward to another girl who has the opportunity to really improve her life, build a sisterhood and find a place to call home.”
But Patton also sees now how sustainable her program was. Former campers continue to pay it by either hosting workshops for current campers or returning to work at camp.
“That’s more than enough reason to stay tuned and stay the course: see how I can help these girls win,” says Patton. “I’m here every summer as long as the Creator gives me strength.”
Similarly, Otey is motivated to enrich her campers by helping them learn about and appreciate people and cultures around the world – particularly with a focus on the contributions of the African population that are “often overlooked in traditional school settings”. One of her teachers moved to Kenya and now returns to teach every summer. This summer she will be accompanied by another teacher from South Africa.
Those connections, Otey says, help kids become leaders in a global community. The camp’s activities – yoga, Brazilian martial arts, cultural cooking classes – not only make learning fun, but they can also make connections to everyday life.
“These are life skills they’re learning, but they’re also making connections to American culture and the cultures of different countries and how we eat similar foods,” says Otey. “They’re prepared differently, so it’s important.”