PROVIDENCE, RI – Summer vacation is a time-honored tradition when school children take a break from academics and go to summer camp, travel with their families or even work summer jobs. But it's also a time when many students just hang around, and that puts them at a greater risk for falling behind when they return to school. I spoke with students in Newport, who don't have enough to do this summer, even though they live in the heart of one of Rhode Island's busiest summer destinations.
It's a perfect summer day - sunny but not too hot under the trees at Miantonomi Park in Newport. 9-year-old Desiree Ford sits at a picnic table coloring and quizzing her older brother Harrison on his times tables.
"What's 11 times 11?" she asks.
"I don't know!" he says. "A thousand something?"
This is not part of Newport where restaurants and beaches bustle with summer tourists. It's the side of town with a slot parlor and a large public housing development. Here is what 11-year old Harrison Ford says he is doing while school is out.
"Watching movies," he says. "Going on the computer. Playing outside a little.
Daneeta Ford, who brought her siblings and two step children to the park says she sometimes worries that they don't have enough structured activities to do during the summer months.
"School should have something during the summer where they keep learning. Her classroom teacher had sent home a book so she could keep up with her math and reading so that helps a little bit," she says.
"Are you making her do it?" I ask.
"Yeah, I do actually," she says. "But her brother isn't. He doesn't like to read or try to sit down or anything so its more of a struggle with him."
Students who spend the summer hanging out often get bored, and what's worse? They can loose more than two months worth of skills in Math and reading - a phenomenon known as the summer slide. The problem is most accute for low income students. According to the National Summer Learning Association, it may account for as much as 2/3 of the test score gap between poor and middle class students by the time they get to middle school.
"Two months is a long time."
Jaime Crowley, is a new Principal at Newport's Thompson Middle School. He says it may be time to re-think the tradition of a 180 day school year and a two and a half month summer break.
"If you want student achievement to improve then I think you have to think of everything you do in a school system," she says. "And time is a big piece of it."
At the end of a long dirt road in Saunderstown, a couple dozen children play capture the flag at Camp Grovesnor, a day camp run by the Newport Boys and Girls Club. About 200 children from diverse backgrounds will pass through the wooded, 95-acre campus over the summer. And like many camps, Director Lauren Schmieg says it is more than just fun and games these days.
"All our kids from 5-10 get four days a week one hour a day of experiential ed," she says. "We have two certified teachers on staff who lead that program to help prevent the summer slide because of course that's a huge concern right now."
Schmeig says roughly 80% of her campers at least maintain their reading level over the course of the summer and some even improve. But she says it would be a shame if academics came to dominate the summer months. Schmeig points out that camp is an important place for children to develop socially and emotionally.
"So many of our kids for the first time have never seen trees this big, they have never been in a canoe or kayak, they've never had a chance to try theatre," she says. "We just have so many different things that kids can tap into those things that will make them grow as people and make them a well rounded person rather than just the things that you might learn out of a book or in a classroom."
In addition to elementary and middle school students, Camp Grovesnor also serves about a dozen high school students by giving them summer jobs. 16-year-old Geraldo Nazario is helping the kitchen staff prepare a turkey lunch.
"We have to make sure the foods don't get mixed up, we have to make sure there's no nuts in the products, make sure we sanitize everything so people don't get sick," he says.
Nazario is hoping this experience will help him get a job in a restaurant, and it may be helping him stay out of trouble too. Nazario says a lot of his friends back in Newport are spending the summer going to the beach and getting into drugs and alcohol.
"A lot of people around Newport actually do that because we don't have a lot of stuff to do around the town so most people abuse substances," he says.
Nazario has a gentle manner and soft brown eyes. As he clears out the dishwasher, he explains that his father abandoned the family when he was little, and his mother's battle with addiction has now landed him in foster care. Nazario says his personal challenges makes this summer job even more important.
"I like working here because of the kids," he says. "It makes me feel better about myself that I'm helping other people."
The Boys and Girls club estimates that their program along with several others serve roughly 300 Newport students over the summer. But there are thousands of children around the state who don't have the same opportunity. One recent survey found that nearly half of Rhode Island school children do not enroll in summer programs, but would like to, if they were more readily available.
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