Pittsburgh Public Schools expand summer literacy, activities camp

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The Summer Dreamers Academy, a five-week literacy and activities camp the Pittsburgh Public Schools created this year to boost reading and creativity among students in middle grades, will be expanded to include students in kindergarten through eighth grade next year.

The camp, which is scheduled to run from July 11 through Aug. 10, will represent the breadth of the district's summer programming for K-8 students in the city schools, Cate Reed, director of the camp, told the school board on Tuesday.

The camp, which is funded by federal stimulus monies - $10 million that funded the camp this year and next summer - is the school district's attempt to tackle the effects of "summer loss."

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.

"Studies have shown that kids can lose up to two months of academic progress in summer months," Ms. Reed told members of the board's education committee.

Next year, the camp will feature an extended day, lengthening it by an hour - from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. - to expand time for the activities while maximizing the time they spend in literacy classes, Ms. Reed said.

A registration packet will be sent to all current K-8 students and the registration window will open in February and close on May 15.

This year, the camp, which crested at about 1,500 students on its third day, averaged an attendance of about 1,200 students daily, even though approximately 2,300 had registered for the camp.

The camp, which was housed in six sites across the city- Pittsburgh 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.

Next year, the camp is tentatively scheduled to be housed in 13 schools across the city.

Attendance is the key challenge for the camp, administrators said, because school summer programming has to compete with activities like sports camps or family vacations.

This summer the district had hoped to average about 1,600 students daily, but even though they didn't achieve that goal, administrators said they were encouraged by the attendance numbers they saw.

But administrators also acknowledged that attendance rates were a reflection of the programming offered.

"Our main theory is that when kids are excited and engaged, they're going to come," said Eddie Wilson, a camp administrator.

Among the lessons learned this summer, Mr. Wilson said, was the fact that the activities at a particular camp site affected its attendance.

The district, which contracted with 27 different organizations to offer a variety of activities ranging from judo and kayaking to ballroom dancing and arts and crafts, found that different sites performed better than others mostly because of how students took to the activities.

And so for next year, Mr. Wilson said, administrators are considering an activities fair during the first two days of the camp to give students a sense of the activities they might want to sign up for.

Karamagi Rujumba: krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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