A Summer to Remember

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Guest blog by Christian Rhodes

My first “real” job was as a camp counselor at the local Boys and Girls Club in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. I spent the summer ensuring middle school students had fun while learning. I would stay up late thinking of new lessons to teach or a motivating message I would recite during our morning check-ins. I appreciated each high five, smile, and even a few tears as camp concluded as I got ready for my next semester at UNC-Chapel Hill. Occasionally, I would see my “students” when I visited home at the grocery store or church. I was always surprised that they remembered our special handshakes, mostly because I had forgotten them. I loved being a camp counselor. I loved the young people I met and hopefully positively influenced.

That feeling of nostalgia is happening across the country with even greater importance than when I served. Organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, faith organizations, park and recreation centers, and others are stepping up to provide safe, engaging environments for students who desperately need a sense of normalcy. The need for building and, in some cases, rebuilding positive relationships with peers and trusting adults is paramount this summer, along with the traditional necessity for high-quality academic support. Some programs set up vaccination centers for their adolescent students eligible for the vaccine, while others are taking the necessary precautions to ensure our youngest learners are safe while they learn and have fun this summer.

This week, we celebrate National Summer Learning Week, sponsored by the National Summer Learning Association, highlighting and bringing awareness to the great work organizations and governmental entities are embarking on to provide students with a “summer like no other” after a “year we will not forget.” Secretary Cardona, elected officials, and others are visiting summer sites across the country to bring awareness to the importance of quality summer programming, many that expanded this year due to the investment of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). As a result, millions of students across the country are experiencing the joys of summer enrichment, maybe even for the first time due to the ARP’s investments in summer learning and loss of instructional time.  While summer learning is a critical component of our work to reopen our schools and “build back better,” the truth is that quality, engaging summer learning is simply part of excellent education and something that every student must be able to access.

For example, in Reading, PA, the Teachers in the Park program works with students from low-income backgrounds in enrichment programming taught by teachers from that community. This CDC compliant program takes place outside in township parks and has grown in size and awareness since its inception in 2004.

Through the Department’s Summer Learning and Enrichment Collaborative, we have learned about the innovative practices states and school districts are employing to address the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students, especially those most impacted by the pandemic. States like Oklahoma, Kansas, and Minnesota are expanding programming options with ARP resources and ensuring students access the supports they need as an on-ramp to a successful school year. School districts are finding innovative ways to engage older students through apprenticeships and career opportunities. In our nation’s capital, District of Columbia Public Schools is leveraging the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program to accelerate learning by ensuring students are learning while they are employed this summer. San Diego Unified School District partnered with the San Diego Foundation and over 50+ community-based organizations to provide San Diego students with a half-day of academic enrichment and the rest of the day for fun and engaging recreation. Cities like Baltimore, M.D., and Camden, N.J are thinking of ways to use their funds to increase community violence intervention programs as stakeholders seek to find academically enriching programs in safe environments for students’ social, emotional, and mental well-being.

With historic investments and access to summer learning opportunities, this summer is shaping out to be a generational opportunity to prepare students and staff for the new school year and for the promise of what a reimagined education system could be. Despite all of the changes and disruptions the pandemic brought, my hope is somewhere at a Boys and Girls Club in Puerto Rico, a community center in Los Angles or an early childhood center in Portland, Oregon, a camp counselor is preparing for a group of eager young people excited for the future and enjoying the fun of summer.

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