Summer programs see biggest year yet | VailDaily.com

Summer programs see biggest year yet

Melanie Wong
mwong@vaildaily.com

Johnna Williams helps Jacob Valenzuela with math problems in her classroom at June Creek Elementary School. Williams teaches a four-week summer class using the STEAM Curriculum, which focuses on science, technology, English, arts and math.

EAGLE COUNTY — At the beginning of each summer, when the last bell rings and students head out of their classroom for the last time, teachers know that some kids won't pick up a book or practice a single math skill the entire summer. While some head to summer camps or continue learning at home, those with no educational activities throughout the summer can lose up to a couple of months worth of learning, meaning they start the next school year behind.

However, for 435 first- through eighth-graders who participated in the Youth Foundation's PwrHrs summer programs over the last month, the four-week program not only kept them from sliding back in math and reading skills but provided extra emotional, social and language support that many would not have gotten otherwise.

Summer school is nothing new, but in Eagle County, this marked the first summer that the Youth Foundation and Eagle County Schools joined efforts to create one summer enrichment program for all the kids across the district. The cash-strapped school district had been struggling to meet the summer school needs of its kids, so it partnered with the nonprofit Youth Foundation, which has a preexisting summer program. The result was significant improvements in the areas of math and reading, and as far as numbers of students, it was a banner summer for both organizations.

Heather Eberts, assistant superintendent of learning services with Eagle County Schools, called it "a really great partnership."

"Our budget has been cut the last number of years — that's not secret," she said. "Summer school was something we used to be able to provide in great budget years, but we got to the point where we weren't able to provide much at all — something like 20 kids in one building across the district. That's when we started talking to the Youth Foundation."

The school district contributed about 15 percent of the funds, as well as the facilities, while the Youth Foundation funded the rest and provided transportation.

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"The advantage to that was we weren't competing for teachers to teach these summer programs, and we were offering more than the basic math and reading tutoring — they got enrichment and a fun environment," said Melisa Rewold-Thuon, vice president of education for the Youth Foundation.

Not your typical summer school

Besides basic summer school tutoring, the kids spent an hour each day doing activities like swimming, art projects and playing soccer. The middle school students got to do STEM activities, such as learning about trajectory with water balloon launchers or building air pressure compulsion rockets.

Kids also got a snack and lunch included in the program, and parents paid $50 for the four weeks, although discounted rates were also offered. And the results showed.

"Last year (of the kids in PwrHrs), 87 percent showed growth in math and 85 percent showed growth in reading," said Rewold-Thuon. "So many kids don't have very many opportunities to do things here in the summer, either because their parents are working, they can't afford camps, or because of a situation at home. It's great for the kids that need that extra boost to go into the school year or who teachers know are at risk of not doing things over the summer."

June Creek third-grade teacher and longtime PwrHrs coordinator Johnna Williams said she can attest to the impact of the program, saying that she sees kids in PwrHrs make strides in maturity and academics and arrive for the school year more prepared than they would have been otherwise. Sometimes it makes a difference between a student going to the next grade or staying behind.

"There are absolutely kids who wouldn't be able to participate in the next grade without summer PwrHrs. As teachers talking about where a kid should go the next year, we take into account whether they'll have that extra support over the summer," she said.

Williams said the summer programs not only support students but teachers as well.

"I've seen this program grow from after-school babysitting to a real, data driven, academic-based, support for the school district. It's offering teachers a second job to provide tutoring for our students who are most in need, teachers who otherwise would need second jobs to live up here. I think that's amazing," she said.

A growing need

The partnership between the district and the Youth Foundation is a unique one not seen in many other communities, with a nonprofit essentially running the school district's summer programs. Eagle County Schools says it doesn't anticipate being able to take back a bulk of the financial responsibility for the programs anytime soon, but Ebert said the district is grateful for the partnership.

Rewold-Thuon said there is still much to be done, from including more kids in the summer programs to raising funds to cover the costs.

"There's a lot more need to be met," she said. "We could have easily doubled the size of what we did this summer, but we didn't have the funding. We'd love to not just have kids who are struggling, but include any kid who wants to have an enriching summer experience."