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City’s summer camps transform into classrooms

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Nate Kersey-Williams, a camp counselor at the Frankford Boys & Girls Club in Northeast Philadelphia, is sprawled out in the corner of his club’s stuffy gym. The sound of basketballs meeting hardwood echoes around him. There is no air conditioner. Beads of sweat trickle down a collage of tattoos on his neck.

It’s nearly 5 p.m. when a stray ball bops the head of a young girl in braids next to him. She begins to cry, and Kersey-Williams moves to contain the situation. All day, he has been allocating juice boxes and popsicles, giving high-fives, and neutralizing childhood disputes.This summer, however, he’s not just expected to be a positive role model. He’s also a teacher responsible for ensuring that his campers are keeping up with their reading skills.

“We’re making sure that our kids stay on top of their books,” said Kersey-Williams, the club’s athletic director, who has been infusing reading components into basketball games.

Before he was a counselor, Kersey-Williams, 23, began attending Northeast Frankford Boys & Girls Club as a 6-year-old. The organization is his life — but it’s a club that has undergone a metamorphosis since his days as a youngster.

“There wasn’t a heavy dose of literacy given to youth here," said Kersey-Williams, the father of two young daughters. "Now … we have whole segments and portions of our day that are dedicated to kids staying in their academics in the summertime.”

As part of the national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the new local READ! by 4th initiative, a host of Philadelphia community organizations, including the Boys &Girls Clubs, are committed to transforming their sites, recreation centers, and traditional summer camps into more structured learning environments. The aim is to dramatically increase child literacy rates by 2020.

Forty-five summer camps and more than 20 recreation centers in Philadelphia are including 30 minutes of daily reading activities in their regular camp schedules. The Free Library of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Reads provided books to all the camps that needed them. The Free Library also provided training and prepared literacy activity packets for counselors at these camps.

The move puts more responsibility on camp directors and counselors, like Kersey-Williams, who are now evolving into hybrid instructors expected to deliver doses of learning. Besides the Boys & Girls Clubs, summer camps at Big Brothers Big Sisters, Salvation Army and the YMCA are retooling their summer camps to be non-traditional classrooms.

In the past, these programs have all had some literacy components. But this summer, there is a push to “all do it together with the idea of getting results,” said Hedra Packman, former deputy director of the Free Library, who is serving as a consultant for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

Packman explained that test scores of participants from last spring and next fall will be compared with students who did not participate. She hopes this will help establish which programs had the largest impact and what approaches worked best.

“Programs are now being intentional about what they do, so they are addressing summer learning loss,” Packman said.

The Salvation Army, for example, has introduced a comprehensive tutoring program designed to keep kids in the classroom and on track academically over summer.

“Counselors will be trained so that if students read a story, they can do literacy activities around that story, such as putting on a play, drawing pictures, making puppets — traditional camp activities, but around a book or story,” explained Packman.

These summer programs are relatively inexpensive for parents. The Boys & Girls Clubs, for instance, charges $5 for an annual membership fee that includes summer camp. The clubs look after hundreds of campers on a daily basis and around 7,000 annually,

Christopher Gale, manager of literacy initiatives at Boys & Girls Clubs Philadelphia, said the initiative to provide dedicated educational components in the summer isn’t exactly easy. He thinks parents and children both view summer as a time for fun and relaxation and may resist efforts to include more structured learning activities

This attitude, Gale said, needs to change.

“If we just continue to perpetuate these traditional stereotypes of summer, and that it’s just about hanging out and not about learning, I think globally we just set ourselves behind,” said Gale, 32, who is the father of two boys.

The club receives most of its books through donations from organizations like Judith’s Reading Room, which provides customized libraries to nonprofits. As part of READ! by 4th’s infusion approach to summer learning, Gale and his staff are “tricking kids to learn, because they’re having fun.” In the past, literacy exercises that were too much like what students got in the classroom during the regular school year have failed, he said.

“Because it’s summer camp, we found kids weren’t really into it and were rejecting it,” he said. “We’re really trying to provide a space where kids feel challenged. We’re looking at the different approaches and what works better.”

So far, that’s been injecting literacy into games like soccer, basketball, and baseball. Gale said a literacy-infused baseball game called “word ball,” where players earn bases through forming words, is a camp favorite.

Although Gale is optimistic about the READ! by 4th’s systematic approach, he knows it will be an uphill battle. This summer, just eight of Philadelphia’s 13 Boys & Girls Club sites have been able to incorporate the new emphasis on reading and literacy activities.

“We just don’t have enough staff to do literacy infusion in all of our sites right now,” he explained.

Stay tuned for Episode 3 of the Notebook’s Summer Lost series on learning loss, due out next week. Subscribe to the Notebook’s YouTube & Vimeo channels to see all of the Summer Lost episodes. Follow Dorian Geiger on Twitter.

Watch the other episodes in the series Episode 1: The slide

Episode 3: Cash-strapped families struggle to keep kids learning through summer

Episode 4: In Baltimore, students go high-tech at low cost

Episode 5: Immigrants face steeper summer slide

Episode 6: As summer ends, promising start in push to curb learning loss

Talking summer learning loss with PhillyCAM

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