As the school year simmers down and the heat turns up, the summer months look different for everyone. Some kids are shooting hoops at basketball camp, while others sit poolside or earn some cash at a summer job.
Every summer, millions of Black children are enrolled in summer camps, with participation steadily increasing since 2008. And a trend among Black parents is choosing programs that help keep their children excited about learning and keep them from losing academic ground during the break.
When she started the D.C.-based Kids & Culture Camp over a decade ago, Jania Otey was creating a remedy for a problem she saw. Otey, who has home-schooled her children their whole lives, was looking for an all-encompassing summer program. She was “disappointed with the offerings.”
“The camps were very singular in focus,” she says. “I actually wanted something more for my children. In particular, I wanted a camp that encompassed lots of different aspects focused on enrichment but also a huge part of culture that they would not get in a traditional school setting.”
Not too far away in Richmond, Virginia, Angela Patton was on a similar mission. She walked around her neighborhood advertising her Camp Diva Leadership Academy, which was focused on helping girls both get out of the house and learn how to use their voice.
“I noticed the lack of programming that would engage [girls], and other people joined me,” Patton says. “They started to see the need for young girls to have a space of their own.”
More Parents Are Choosing Educational and Skills-Based Summer Camps
From Black Girls Code to NASA-sponsored space camps, educational and skills-based summer programs are soaring in popularity. The push comes from research about summer learning loss, especially the impact on low-income kids, and how being engaged with learning over the summer can help kids get ahead. Plus, in this stage of the pandemic, families are craving additional social and learning opportunities.
“It’s a combination of a variety of things,” says Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance. “The idea is that summer can be fun, and at the same time, you can be learning.”
Another boost comes from the American Rescue Plan, which earmarked specific funds for summer learning and enrichment.
“We were in this remarkable place where the money is actually there to serve more kids,” Grant says.
The pandemic also played a part in Black parents’ interest in continuing learning in the summer months. The back and forth between virtual and in-person learning was particularly difficult for kids of color, Otey says.
“Parents are trying to figure out how to fill in the gaps and make up for areas that their children did not get the learning that they wanted them to during the traditional school year,” Otey says.
David Park, the senior vice president of strategy and communication at Learning Heroes, echoed Otey’s feelings, saying parents and guardians are realizing their child may need additional support following the pandemic.
“While I don’t feel like parent mindsets are focused on tutoring so much right now, or anything official, they are looking at summer camps and other learning environments like that to provide their child with the social, emotional, and academic support that they need now more than ever,” Park says.
At both Camp Diva and Kids & Culture, campers are exposed to a variety of topics that don’t get much — if any — attention in regular classroom settings. Kids & Culture teaches African drumming, chess, and the geography, history, and landmarks of different countries. Tailored exclusively to Black girls, Camp Diva teaches young women how to recognize trauma and obstacles, and use their voices to advocate for themselves and others.
“There’s this huge opportunity, not just to learn, but for kids to explore some passions in a way that they might not be able to do during the traditional school day,” Grant says.
Black Parents Seek Enriching Summer Opportunities for Their Kids
Black families have been enrolling kids in summer programs at an increasing rate since 2008, according to a study by Afterschool Alliance. By 2019, 50% of Black families said they have at least one child involved in summer programming, which is higher than the national average.
Among their top concerns for their children in early 2021, 27% of Black parents were worried about their children losing their motivation or interest to learn, according to Learning Heroes’ Out-of-School Time Programs report, which was commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. And Black parents said developing a specific skill was one of their top three priorities in determining a summer program for their child, with 81% citing this as important. Additionally, 80% want their children exposed to new experiences that will open up new knowledge and areas of interest, and 70% said the program should make their child motivated and excited about learning.
Afterschool Alliance found similar results. In their survey among Black parents, 63% of respondents said opportunities to build life skills were among their top priorities for summer programs, and 60% wanted the program to keep their child from losing academic ground during the school break. The survey results showed that, in most categories, Black parents had higher expectations for summer programs than white parents.
Park says this trend has shown up over the last six years of research, adding that Black and Hispanic parents really believe in the power of education.
“It’s really stood out in our research how important it is for Black parents specifically to make sure that their children are getting the academic support that they really need,” Park says. “We also see higher percentages of Black parents saying they’re looking for opportunities for academic support, understanding that their child may have lost some of the academic skills they need to be prepared for in the next grade.”
However, despite the growth in summer camp attendance, there’s still a large unmet demand with 35% of Black families — adding up to 2.3 million kids — saying they would enroll their children in a program if one was available to them. Cost was the top reason Black parents didn’t enroll their children in summer programs, with 36% saying they were too expensive. Following that was location and transportation options.
Black Kids Need These Spaces
Depending on the camp and activities, Black kids are learning a variety of lessons during the summer months. Whether it’s logic, advocacy, or professional development, these lifelong skills are taught in fun, engaging, and tangible ways that a classroom setting doesn’t always offer.
At Kids & Culture, Otey remembers campers who have taken their cultural lessons to work at the United Nations.
“They take what they’ve learned, and they apply it going forward,” Otey says. “We don’t want it to be just a one-time thing but to broaden their skill base.”
Camp Diva makes sure to empower Black girls, teaching them that they don’t have to accept the way Black girls and women have traditionally been treated: adultified, sexualized, and mistreated.
“It does allow them to amplify their voices. It gives them more ownership,” Patton says. “They see themselves and they get to own not only the thing we’re building, but their Blackness, their voice, their responsibilities, their culture.”
Whether it’s through day trips, speakers, counselors, or other activities, children are opening doors to futures that kids may never have thought of. Oftentimes, parents prepare their kids to take jobs similar to the ones they’ve worked, Patton says. If they don’t know the future of work, how can they pass that knowledge to their children?
“The exposure to all of that opens up new avenues for them,” Grant says. “It’s not just the academic piece, it’s opening a window to real jobs that are needed in our economy and giving kids the beginning of the skills to see themselves in those jobs.”
These programs fill gaps that parents can’t always see, and allow them to close gaps they may not have the skills or bandwidth to do. Plus, doing these activities outside of school settings allows kids the freedom to explore without the pressure of grades.
“Putting things in a practical perspective, making it real, making it relevant is such a fun and great way to learn,” Grant says. “And if they don’t work, that’s part of the learning experience.”
‘I’m Here Every Summer’
Even after several years — and lots of work — organizing their summer programs, Patton and Otey still look forward to their groups of kids convening every year.
Now in the midst of their One Million Reasons campaign, Patton has been reflecting on what keeps her coming back every summer. Her main reason is the camp’s namesake: her friend’s daughter, Diva, who died at 5 years old after an accident with a firearm found in a relative’s home. As rising violence and mental health issues impact people all over the country, Patton says “young people need us to stand in and guide them more and meet them and work with them and partner with them.”
“I have to keep Diva’s spirit alive through what Diva missed because we lost her so soon. I have the opportunity to keep giving it to another girl,” Patton says. “I look forward to another girl having an opportunity to really uplift her life, to build a sisterhood, to find a place that she could call home.”
But Patton is also now seeing how sustainable her program has been. Former campers are paying it forward, either hosting workshops for current campers or returning to work at the camp.
“That is more than enough reason to stay in it and stay the course: seeing how I can help these girls get to victory,” Patton says. “I’m here every summer as long as the Creator gives me strength.”
Similarly, Otey is motivated by enriching her campers by helping them to learn and appreciate people and cultures all over the world — especially focusing on the contributions of African people, which are “often overlooked in the traditional school setting.” One of their teachers moved to Kenya and now returns every summer to teach. This summer, she’ll be joined by another teacher from South Africa.
These connections, Otey says, help children become leaders in a global community. Through the camp’s activities — yoga, Brazilian martial arts, cultural cooking classes — not only is learning fun, but they can make these connections to everyday life.
“These are life skills that they’re learning, but they also make the connections about even American culture and cultures of different countries and how we eat similar foods,” Otey says. “They’re prepared differently, so that’s why it’s important.”