Pittsburgh day camp mixes learning, dreaming

Activities, classes seek to tackle 'summer loss'

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Jerome Williams is trying to build the head of a cyborg this summer, using wire mesh, two light bulb caps, the motherboard of his broken PlayStation and an old computer hard drive.

A lanky 12-year-old, Jerome, a seventh-grader at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, has spent the last three weeks working on his contraption every afternoon in a portraiture and mosaics class at Pittsburgh Peabody High School.

In the same classroom, Jenevia Wilson, an 11-year-old from Garfield, is all too eager to show off a mosaic of a woman's face, made of small concrete slabs, that she's spent the last couple of weeks meticulously laying out on a small wooden desk.

In a room down the hallway, three precocious boys -- Sean Allen, 11, Reign Butler, 11, and Glenn King, 12 -- seem to have struck up a friendship in a sculpture class where they spend the afternoons teasing each other as they mold clay figurines and play with wax, plaster and balsa foam.

Sean, who just completed fifth grade at Pittsburgh Fulton PreK-5, stunned his friends and teachers on a recent afternoon by using a word they didn't expect was embedded in his vocabulary.

"I'm ready to burnish this," he said, matter-of-factly, reaching for a spoon in his toolkit to start compacting and rubbing a wet clay pot until it was smooth and shiny.

That remark and the learning environment that spurred it, Pittsburgh Public Schools officials contend, is the essence of the ongoing Summer Dreamers Academy, a five-week literacy and activities camp the district created this year to boost reading and creativity among students in middle grades.

The camp, which is funded by federal stimulus monies -- $10 million to fund the camp this year and next summer -- is the school district's attempt to tackle the effects of "summer loss," an increasingly debated phenomenon in American public education.

The theory goes that students who sit at home doing nothing, watching TV or playing video games all summer long, tend to lose some academic aptitude and often can't compete with peers who spend the summer engaged in fun activities that not only broaden their life experiences, but challenge them to think critically.

In Pittsburgh, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said the summer camp was specifically designed for middle school students because district academic achievement data shows they tend to do well on proficiency tests, but their performance generally tapers off as they advance into higher grades.

"So, we see this as an opportunity to encourage discipline and foster habits of mind and behaviors that hopefully will be critical for these kids when they hit the transition years of going from eighth grade to ninth grade," said Cate Reed, director of the summer camp.

To that end, school officials said, a summer reading camp, which is free of charge for city students, is a good place to start. Staffed by 175 camp counselors, most of them college students or recent high school graduates, and 90 city school teachers, the camp kicked off on July 12 and will end on Aug. 13.

So far, the camp, which crested at about 1,500 students on its third day, is averaging an attendance of about 1,200 students daily, said Ms. Reed. "Given all the summer activities that we have to compete with, we're happy, but not ecstatic with our attendance rates," she added.

The camp is housed in six sites across the city -- Brashear, CAPA, Peabody and Obama high schools and South Brook and King elementary schools -- and is built on an arts and science reading program.

The students are separated for either the arts or science track and placed into one of two reading groups based on their proficiency. In group A are those who are proficient at grade-level reading and in group B, those whose reading is below grade-level according to state test results.

But as they crafted the summer camp, school officials said they faced a fundamental challenge: How do you make students want to read, especially during summer months when all they want to do is relax and enjoy themselves?

The program intersperses fun reading with other academic activities like monitored computer surfing and outdoor adventures, making sure the camp actually feels like a fun summer activity, school officials said.

Perhaps no teacher embodies that ethos better than Danielle Harris, a coordinator of the camp site at Pittsburgh South Brook 6-8. A reading coach at Pittsburgh Classical Academy and Pittsburgh Sterrett 6-8, Ms. Harris and her team of camp counselors and teachers are big on "creating summer camp spirit."

"The idea is to get the students pumped and excited about being here, that they look forward to coming back every day," said Ms. Harris. That starts from the moment they step off the school bus at 8:15 a.m.

"We're there waiting for them, cheering and high-fiving as they get off the bus, getting them excited for the day," she said. That intensity carries on through a 30-minute high-energy meeting comprised of dramatic skits, music and dance, and motivational speakers.

At South Brook, where the campers have chosen to name their camp "Dream Nation," that's when they give out awards like the "Spirit Stick," given to the camper who exhibited the most camp spirit the day before.

Beyond fostering "camp spirit," however, school officials said they had to offer a variety of food options and afternoon activities in order to attract students to the program and to keep them committed to it.

"One of the things we have constantly heard from parents and students is that they want to see a diverse food menu when possible," said Allison McLeod, the summer camp's operations manager.

She said the camp's dietary menu is built around four food breaks, which include breakfast, two 15-minute snack periods -- one in the morning and another in the afternoon -- and a 45-minute lunch period.

The snacks are mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, a bottle of cold water, granola bars and other items not traditionally found on the school menu like pita chips and hummus with olives.

"We have also introduced hot panini sandwiches and salads for lunch," said Ms. McLeod, adding that the menu was determined after conducting a survey of middle-grade students last fall.

From an academic standpoint, the three-hour block from 9:15 a.m. to 12:15 pm, is perhaps the most important period of the day. It consists of literature circles, focus novels that they discuss and other activities specific to the camp site. The average class has 20 students with one certified teacher and two camp counselors.

In Patricia Joseph's class at Pittsburgh South Brook, a group of 10 teenage girls recently spent about 15 minutes of their morning discussing the story arc in the adventure novel "Swindle" by Gordon Korman, with Mr. Roosevelt, who made a surprise visit to the camp site.

Ms. Joseph, a seventh-grade teacher of communications at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12, said the girls -- who are in the Arts Group A, which means they can read at or above grade-level proficiency -- are entranced by the reading list.

"I think they like the books because they are exciting stories," Ms. Joseph said. By the time they're done with camp, the girls will have read and completed one focus novel and chunks of four others, which they are reading at the same time.

The reading list includes books like "Hoot," "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," "Gregor the Overlander," "Maniac Magee," "A Crooked Kind of Perfect" and "Saving Juliet," among others. All told, the students will have added at least six books each to their personal library when they're through with the camp.

Beyond the academic programming, district officials said they were specially keen on building an afternoon program that offered students a variety of activities. And so, from 1 to 3 p.m., each of the six sites offers a range of six to 10 activities like portraiture, sculpting, judo, Ultimate Frisbee, rowing, youth cycling, world music and dance, and photography, among others.

The school district has contracted some 27 providers who are in charge of the afternoon programming, said Ms. Reed.

Five of the afternoon activities that don't qualify for federal funding under Title 1, a program aimed at improving the academic achievement of low-income children, are being funded by a $200,000 grant from the Heinz Endowment and the Pittsburgh Foundation, she added.

On a recent scorching Thursday afternoon, Jesse Foglia, a coach of the junior team at Three Rivers Rowing Association, supervised a group of instructors as they prepared a group of 40 students from the CAPA camp site for a rowing session on the Allegheny River.

"It's really exciting to see how these kids have taken to the water. Most of them were nervous about this when they first started three weeks ago," said Mr. Foglia, adding that the group started out with kayaking and then dragon boating before moving on to rowing.

"We asked them how many of them had ever been on the water and only two raised their hands," he said. "Now, they've all got the hang of it, and they're having fun."

Karamagi Rujumba: krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719. First Published August 2, 2010 4:00 AM


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