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City schools struggle to connect students with summer options

Jovani Nias’s 21 years as a mail carrier in Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn has given her unique insight into how families in the neighborhood spend the year. Now that school is out, she said, differences among families even in the same building are even more obvious.

“You see some kids leaving for programs or summer school, and the other kids are just out, hanging on the corners,” Nias said.

Which direction a student takes over the summer can change the course of her education. Researchers have pegged students’ academic regression — known as the “summer slide” — as the equivalent of two months of school or more. Students who are occupied in summer learning are more likely to sustain their progress from the previous year.

But whether city students can avoid the summer slide is often a matter of luck, depending largely on how their school’s approach to summer learning and their family’s access to information that schools don’t always provide.

“There are opportunities that are invisible in my community that are more visible in other communities,” said Sheryl Davis, a Brooklyn parent. “We all have that conversation, what are you kids doing this summer? And I find that a lot of schools do not help with that.”

What schools do and don’t do

The Department of Education Department of Family and Community Engagement and the Division of Equity and Access each play a role in overseeing summer options and funneling information about them to schools and communities. But it largely leaves the decision about how aggressively to pair students with summer opportunities up to individual schools.

“I’d like to say there’s one centralized place but there isn’t,” said Marcus Liem, a department spokesman. “The Division of Family and Community Engagement provides information that ideally trickles down to all principals and parent coordinators, and hopefully they get the information to families as well.”

How well the information trickles down varies widely among schools.

At the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, a full-time student enrichment coordinator provides detailed information about summer options and coaches families through the application process.

Elissa Martel, who plays that role, said that if she hears about a theater camp, she’ll track down students she knows love acting and guide them through the application process. If the program costs more than their families can afford, Martel said she finds scholarships and helps the students apply.

“A lot of our students’ families are single-parent families,” Martel said. “Parents working evenings or weekends don’t necessarily have a schedule that’s conducive even to helping with homework in some cases, or going the extra mile and getting students involved in after-school or summer opportunities. It’s very time-consuming, and some of our students’ families don’t have Internet access at home or don’t have a computer that functions.”

Davis said the personal assistance is a main reason her daughters have a packed summer schedule that includes volunteering at the Brooklyn library and interning a few days a week for their assemblyman, Walter Mosley.

But Martel doesn’t actually work for the school, which Davis’s older daughter attends. A foundation connected to the school, called the Adams Street Foundation, pays her salary. And she said it’s hard to imagine how a school could offer such extensive support without adding positions like hers.

“Most of the other partnership coordinators or enrichment focused people I’ve interacted with have some other job title as well,” Martel said. “Job counseling, guidance counselors — a lot of people are struggling with balancing all the hats that they’re wearing.”

Parents try to fill the gap

More common is the experience of Sharon Gross. She said her children’s school, Brooklyn College Academy, had passed along some information about summer programs, but it was informal parent networks that helped her twins find something meaningful to do.

One of those networks is run by Davis, who said she was struck by the experiences of colleagues in the customer service department at Con Edison, from which she recently retired.

“When I would go to work and say, ‘I’m going go to see about this program,’ my coworkers didn’t know anything about these programs,” Davis said. So she started sharing any information she received through regular email blasts.

In a recent message from Davis, Gross learned about CAMBA, a Brooklyn nonprofit that provides paid work for teenagers. Her twins will make $8 an hour as program assistants at a summer camp, where they will also receive mentoring. Last summer they worked at Long Island College Hospital, an opportunity Gross found out about through another parent on her son’s swim team.

“There’s so much that the kids can benefit from,” Gross said. “But if you don’t get the information or you don’t know anyone to give you the information, you can miss out.”

Gross said she also relies on parent networks for information about colleges and scholarships.

“It’s still time-consuming because you have to go through each and every one and see which one applies for your kids and then do the work that’s required to get the scholarship. But, I have to say, I’d rather go sift through it as opposed to not having anything,” she said.

Continuity brings benefits

On a recent a recent afternoon in Bed-Stuy, after some local schools had already finished the year, many parents said they didn’t know what their kids were doing next. But children whose schools offer summer programs or who already participated in after-school programs that run summer camps were most likely to have plans.

Tiffany Hall’s son Tyrone is going into second grade at Beginning with Children Charter School 2. She said she got a call from the school giving him the option of attending optional summer school, which she accepted.

Sheryl Connelly, the school’s director of operations, said the summer school was originally only open to students at risk of failing, as is the case at most district schools. “But then we ended up taking more children, as parents heard about it and knew there was a free program,” she said.

But funding summer programs for students who are not failing can be a challenge for budget-strapped schools.

Community groups, such as Children of Promise in Bed-Stuy, also run summer programs, but Lakisha Adams, who lives in Flatbush, said the organizations typically give priority to kids already involved in their programming during the year.

There simply aren’t enough spots to go around in programs that are “affordable to the average person who’s struggling and paying more than half their income for rent,” she said.

Even parents determined to find summer programs said the demand for affordable options exceeds the supply. Bronx father Mohamed Sheriff said all the programs he looked into for his 6- and 12-year-old sons last year and this year were full. Both sons attend the Bronx Academy of Promise.

“Even the waiting list is so high. There is no hope they will be able to take either one of them,” Sheriff said. “I didn’t discuss it with the children’s school, because they don’t tell us about it and I don’t think they do such programs.”

Safwan Akhder says the only summer program she heard about from her daughter Sazidah’s school, P.S. 93, is too far away, so she’ll stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Tech who wants to join a summer soccer team.

Safwan Akhder says the only summer program she heard about from her daughter Sazidah’s school, P.S. 93, is too far away, so she’ll stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Tech who wants to join a summer soccer team.

Courtesy betsydevos.com

The stakes are high, for safety as well as academics. As PTA president at an Explore charter school, Adams said she saw kids who had not attended summer programs struggle to re-adjust to the structure and rigor of a new school year. And “with the gang activity and all this stuff that happens on the streets, it’s dangerous and you want your kids in as much structure as possible,” she said.

Without a plan

For many families in Bed-Stuy, summer is starting with open questions about how their children will spend their time. Kyndal Williams, a rising junior at Gotham Professional Arts Academy, wants a summer job but hasn’t found one. What does she plan to do instead? “Nothing,” Williams said.

Her younger sister Sierra jumped to explain what “nothing” means. “Chilling. She likes to walk places or take the bus places. And stuff like that, and talk to people.”

On her son Shaleek’s last day of second grade at P.S. 93, Aebony Morris said she “wanted him to go to a summer program” but didn’t know of any options nearby that she could afford.

Safwan Akhder said the only summer program she heard about from P.S. 93, which her daughter Sazidah attends, was too far away. Sazidah will stay home and read books with her brother Sumi, a rising sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, who said he wants to join a summer soccer league.

“Still undecided!” another parent said about her daughters’ summer plans, then turned to them. “What do you want to do?”

Francine, who declined to share her last name, said if she had heard of any summer options for her son Shyheem, a rising third grader at P.S. 44, she would have signed him up.

“I hope the school has something for [kids] to do,” Francine said. “I know some schools do stuff for kids in the summer. Does that school? I don’t know.”

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Also participating in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst Chicago, EdSource (California), and GothamSchools’ sister site EdNewsColorado.