Camp Giving Vulnerable Students an Academic 'Home' for the Summer

Michael Helverson studies a vial of
Michael Helverson studies a vial of "blood" to see if it's healthy during a summer program that provides academic and social supports for vulnerable students.
—Emily Kask for Education Week

Camps fill gap with academic supports

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Bossier City, La.

While many students eagerly count down the last few days of the school year, the start of summer break is a more anxious prospect for students in and on the verge of homelessness.

"Letting these kids go in the summer, which sounds great, is for many homeless kids the worst time in their life," said Ralph da Costa Nunez, the president of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.

That's why programs like the Bossier Schools Summer Blast program here are working to help the most vulnerable students keep the academic and social supports they enjoy while school is in session.

Nearly half of Bossier Parish's 23,000 students live in poverty and 400 are homeless. Blast Camp provides three full-day weeks for students in grades 2-5 who are homeless or in foster care. Campers get free transportation, t-shirts, and breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks. Four days a week, they have hands-on classes in reading, math, science, and art with district teachers and community groups. On Fridays, the campers go on field trips to local museums, nature centers, and the local emergency services center.

"Even though it's only three weeks, it gives a student three weeks of time to keep his brain going and make sure he's not losing all the skills he gained during the school year," said Arcenia Anthony, the homeless liaison for Bossier Parish public schools, who directs the camp.

Bracing for 'Summer Surge'

Families with school-age children drive an annual "summer surge" in homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

"Single homeless [people] are moving all the time in the wintertime. Homeless families don't move, because their kids are in school," said da Costa Nunez. "No matter where they are, they kind of hole up ... and even though it's a shelter or in a doubled-up environment, it creates a stable environment for kids. They know where they're coming and going from every day."

But relatives or friends who had allowed families to live doubled up to let their children attend school often ask them to move out at the end of the school year, experts say. Many families end up on the move.

Though programs like Bossier City's are few and far between, da Costa Nunez said, "If you are lucky enough to get into a homeless camp, that can be stabilizing for [homeless students] because it keeps them together. They know each other, they're there for the summer and it helps with the transition back to school."

It also lightens the burden of finding summer child care, which can significantly hit a family's budget and interfere with parents' jobs, according to a study in the Journal of Children and Poverty.

That's one reason Evelyn Benson said she was thrilled when her daughter, 8-year-old Ayana, was invited to join the Blast camp last year.

"We don't have anything planned in the summer because I work graveyard shift. So there's not a lot we can do, you know, other than go to the little park ... no real big learning experiences," Benson said. "When they offered this, it was so wonderful ... because we need some backup during the summer to help [Ayana] keep refreshed."

Academic Focus

On a recent day at the camp, Davion Perry and his brother Jayden donned neon safety goggles to learn about the digestive system. They and about a dozen other children tracked the length of a stretched out model of a human intestine, then watched teacher Ken Smith cram it all back into its actual space in a body while describing how they work.

"The milk you drink, that calcium comes out in the small intestine. Vitamins A, B, C, D, all those you eat, they come out in the small intestine," explained Smith, an educator with SciPort Discovery Center, a museum in nearby Shreveport which partners with the camp for both classes and field trips. "So, now we've gotten you familiar with the process, we're actually going see how this process works."

Then it got messy.

In small teams, the campers simulated a full digestion. They ground up cereal to represent teeth, then churned it to mush in a "stomach" bowl with water. Davion found it gleefully gross.

"Ugh!" Davion said as he funneled it into a length of pantyhose and squeezed it to simulate nutrients pulled by the intestine.

Students learn how to check their pulses and how they change after exercising during a summer camp program for students who are homeless or in foster care in Bossier City, La.
Students learn how to check their pulses and how they change after exercising during a summer camp program for students who are homeless or in foster care in Bossier City, La.
—Emily Kask for Education Week

But the rising 5th grader later confided, "I like the activities best here. I just like it to be a surprise." He and his brother have been attending camp since last year, and they have an older brother who also attended until he aged out in middle school.

The lessons follow next-generation science standards and common-core math and reading standards, but are designed entirely in games and art projects. The science projects and experiments come from a grant from GSK Science in the Summer, which provides support and curriculums to community groups that serve high-risk students.

"These children don't get a lot of opportunities and they are such a pleasure to teach," said Heather Kleiner, SciPort's director of the GSK Science summer program.

Rising Need

The need for summer programs like these is becoming more urgent.

The number of homeless children hit an all-time high this year, with nearly 1.36 million children living doubled up, in shelters, hotels, or on the street.

These students are at higher risk for both summer learning loss and school disengagement than their more securely housed classmates. And under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must track the educational progress of their homeless students, highlighting how well districts support them.

Yet the institute's da Costa Nunez said the number of summer camps for highly vulnerable children has shrunk in recent years, with contracting state budgets and federal McKinney-Vento funds for homeless education. Sustainable academic summer programs often look like Bossier City's: a collaboration of city and district staff, as well as foundations and community groups.

For example, another Science in the Summer program holds two-day mini-camps at a county site that offers meals to homeless, migrant, and poor students in Chapparal, N.M.

"We're like an on-site field trip," said site director Stephanie Hawkins. "We've seen it can make a long-lasting impact on STEM engagement in the fall."

Emily Benson's daughter Ayana returned to the Bossier City camp this year.

On her first day she and her classmates started painting a 9-foot-long mural of the solar system in art class.

"She came home all excited and started naming off all the planets," her mom said, "and you know, it's just good to see your children just light up because they learned something."

Vol. 38, Issue 36, Page 9

Published in Print: June 19, 2019, as Fending Off Dread of Summer Break for Homeless Students
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