With help of federal grant, Delaware camp combines education and recreation

Jameir Napier was apprehensive. The youngster, who will be a seventh-grader at Charter School of New Castle in the fall, wasn’t too excited with the “curriculum” planned out for part of summer vacation.

At least the morning session.

He’d begin his day at the sparkling new library on Del. 9 near New Castle. He would sit in math and English class. Then he’d move on to mandatory electives: arts and crafts, yoga, video production.

Not exactly dodge ball and swimming.

But definitely a way to stem the “summer brain drain” too many kids experience over the summer, said Nicole Lerner, who teaches math at Jameir’s school.

“Summer slide is a huge issue we run into with students,” said Lerner, who added that too many students who do well in end-of-year assessments “are coming back afterward and they are losing a lot of the information they learned.

“So our hope is that our students are here, and they are reading and writing and doing their math. They will retain a lot of that information and come back in just as strong as they left us in June.”

Lerner is also the point person in a new partnership between her school, the YMCA of Delaware and New Castle County. It’s a dual camp experience that’s free of charge for 150 kindergarten- through eighth-graders at her school.

Funded with a $2 million federal grant the county won for five years, the fledgling initiative aims to marry education with recreation.

That’s because after the morning at the library, the kids are bused to either the Bear-Glasgow YMCA or the Western YMCA near Newark.

“We have all types of activities,” said Dave Miller, camp coordinator at Western YMCA. “They swim. We have literacy. We have team-building activities. We have archery. There are so many things we can do. They have thousands of pieces of equipment for sports.

Students from Charter School of New Castle take math classes during their combined education and recreation camp that operates out of the Del. 9 library and two YMCA branches. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“Anything they’re interested in, we are able to provide here. We sing. We dance. We celebrate. We come together. It’s an amazing feeling.”

The camp also aims to help lower-income students like those at Charter of New Castle. Fifty-four percent of the school’s 750 kids are poor. Consequently, the school suffers from the achievement gap between children from low-income families and those of means. That gap is roughly 30 percentage points in key academic subjects.

In addition, the school trails the state average in proficiency in Delaware’s standardized Smarter Balanced tests.

Just 35 percent of students are proficient in math, and 41 percent are up to state standards in English. Those scores are both at least 10 points below the state average, according to state records.

Lerner said the aim of the dual camp is to change that paradigm.

“We are looking at really raising the bar for our students’ education … to offer our students something in the summer that will kind of challenge their mind and their body,” she said.

For Jameir, it’s a smorgasbord of learning and letting loose.

One day in late June at the library, Jameir did his academics, then he sat through a video presentation about drug abuse and practiced yoga.

The summer camps at the Western YMCA and Bear-Glasgow YMCA offer archery as well as other recreational activities. (Courtesy of YMCA of Delaware)

Then it was off to the Western Y, where he played dodge ball and cooled off in the pool.

Jameir now realizes the extra academic time is worthwhile and could help him with his studies.

“I like this better cause, like my mom said, ‘They don’t want your brain to not function because they are going over things that you need to learn,’ ” he said. “So, before I didn’t understand, but it’s like it clicked for me.”

Armani Evans, who is also entering seventh grade, does well in school. But she also finds the new camp enriching.

“It’s a fun thing that anyone can probably enjoy no matter what age you are,” Armani said. “It gives you a new experience instead of having to sit home and not having anything to do.”

And it’s not just fun and games at the Y. Kids are also learning important life lessons. One counselor recently held a session on nutrition, stressing the fact that sodas are loaded with sugar.

She then demonstrated how to make a sweet, tasty and refreshing drink without any sugar. Instead she used seltzer and strawberries.

For camp leader Miller, who works as a school behavioral interventionist the rest of the year, it’s this combination that makes the experience so rewarding for kids. They get a fun-filled summer break while their minds are nourished.

“Some people think kids need to stay in school all year round. I personally don’t agree with that,” he said.

“I think they need that summer to kind of get out and do their own thing and develop their own social skills and things like that,” he said. “Just to keep their brains rolling.”

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