Affordable summer camps are as rare as unicorns

There’s a rite of passage every year at about this time. This yearly tradition causes obsessive scanning of websites and brochures, a glazed-over look from staring at calendars and ridiculous prices, gnashing of teeth and full-blown attacks of guilt, helplessness and panic.

It’s the annual hunt for summer camps—especially affordable summer camps, rare as unicorns. Which is to say, they’re just about nonexistent.  

An article last summer in The New York Times put it this way: “For most parents, summer, that beloved institution, is a financial and logistical nightmare…. We can indulge our annual illusion of children filling joyful hours with sprinkler romps and robotics camp or we can admit the reality: Summer’s supposed freedom is expensive.”

In 2014, according to the article, parents spent an estimated $958 per child on summer expenses. That’s way more than most parents can afford, which means many children end up spending summer on their own, in the care of kids who are only slightly older than they are, or—if they’re a bit luckier—cared for by friends or family.

What kids do over summer has implications for academic success. The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) estimates that the amount of learning elementary students lose in the summer—the “summer slide”—accounts for at least half of the reading achievement gap by the ninth grade. The NSLA has designated July 13 as “Summer Learning Day,” a day for highlighting “the importance of keeping kids learning, safe and healthy every summer.”

A special report by the Afterschool Alliance a few years ago revealed that only one quarter of America’s schoolchildren were in summer learning programs. Parents overwhelmingly want these programs, especially low-income and minority parents. But there are not enough of them to meet the high demand.

In the same report, 83 percent of the nearly 30,000 parents and guardians surveyed said they favored public funding for summer programs “in communities that have few opportunities for children and youth.”

Local YMCAs offer summer camps that are relatively inexpensive, but even those can cost $400 for a two-week session. You can check your local Y’s, either online or in person, for more information. Summer camps are also available through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America; you can check here to find out what’s happening at clubs in your area. 

In some places, community organizations are picking up a bit of the slack. In Washington, D.C., for instance, Concerned Black Men National hosts a five-week summer camp for low-income elementary students that provides meals, safety, structure and the kind of experience kids from better-off families routinely have during the summer. The organization’s summer camp is an extension of its after-school programs.

Pittsburgh Public Schools offers the Summer Dreamers Academy, a free program that’s open to students enrolled in city schools. The program can’t take every student who applies, so enrollment is limited to those who are most at risk for summer learning loss. Registration for that program starts early, too—in March.

School kids play outside

Organizations such as the Fresh Air Fund raise money to provide low-income students with overnight summer camp experiences. If you’re able, you can donate to the Fresh Air Fund, which, by the way, is now accepting applications for 2017 summer programs

Of course, summer learning can occur in visits to libraries, museums, parks and many other places. There are lots of wonderful book suggestions from NEA’s Read Across America and the PTA. Great ideas for summer fun are on the NSLA website, and here.

But most importantly, educators must advocate for the summer learning programs that all students, regardless of where they live or what their family’s income is, deserve. That’s how we can get rid of the summer slide for good.

Do you know of affordable or free summer camp experiences? Leave a comment!


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