Adding Camp to the School Reform Toolbox

When Miami Heat star LeBron James was asked what helped him win his second straight NBA championship, he emphasized, “The hard work I put in at the gym and some moves I practiced over the summer.” 

For many, the lazy days of summer are not seen for what they truly are – a golden opportunity to enrich student education and to better train school staff. Research from the National Summer Learning Association shows major gaps between lower- and higher-income students during the summer and the academic consequences these gaps can have during the school year.  

 This is why After-School All-Stars (ASAS), a national provider of creative after-school programming, is investing more resources than ever into creating structured overnight summer camp experiences for low-income kids.  We are also using our camps to try out new curricula, build new partnerships and improve the skills of our staff.  

ASAS chapters run themed camps on college campuses across the country.  To combat childhood obesity, we have a basketball-based Camp Hoop Heroes in Miami. To ensure students become ready for college, we created CampUs at four campuses. STEM CampUs at Illinois Institute of Technology and San Jose State help prepare kids for the jobs of tomorrow while our national leadership camp at Paul Quinn College in Dallas empowers kids to lead and serve others.

Not only are we impacting the educational outcomes of our targeted young people, we are more efficiently using our staff and program development dollars, giving adults real-world, hands-on training. As much as possible, we practice the mantra: “No more training about kids without kids.”

Summer camp is not a new idea in the discussion about education reform. For more than a century, quality summer programming has taken kids out of their normal environment to disconnect from technology and connect with people. It’s a 24-7 experience where one can learn new things in a structured, informal and creative atmosphere. 

Plus, at ASAS camps, kids establish multiple layers of mentoring relationships: with high school students, counselors who attend college and adult supervisory staff. 

Despite the popularity of summer camp programming, camp and traditional education communities have disconnected. First, consider the demographics: According to the American Camp Association, three-quarters of all overnight campers are white compared with 11 percent black and 7 percent Latino.  The vast majority of overnight campers are listed as middle class. As one principal once said, “You can’t close the gap between the haves and have-nots if you don’t know what the haves have.” The overnight camp experience, unfortunately, has a discreet and limited reach.

Second, only 22 percent of camps report having a formal connection with traditional schools or community-based organizations during the school year. Rather than collaborating and complementing each other, each set of advocates seemingly operates with its own funders, conferences and gurus. 

To be sure, some effective and innovative sleep-away camps coordinate with traditional schools and target low-income kids during the summer, including FIVER, Project Morry, Muddy Sneakers and even school district-run programs, like Portland’s Outdoor School for middle schoolers. These programs show collaboration can be done, but they cannot be alone in their success. We need more to join them, and to do that, we need more camp leaders, school district leaders, community organizations and education reform-movement leaders to approach one another. 

Every organization working with funding for or advocating for low-income youth should ask itself: What are we doing to support more summer camp opportunities so our kids can build on what we did during the school year?  

Summer tours should show education leaders first-hand the summer camp experience in action.  

The camp world employs 330,000 people each year. We should create more partnerships around staff hiring and training. Teachers should be encouraged (including financially) to work at summer camp. Camp directors should hire more teachers or aspiring teachers from urban, low-income schools.  

Furthermore, partnerships should be made between individual schools, school districts, camp organizers and local colleges and universities. Summer camp facilities are usually empty at the end of the school year and then again right before the school year begins. College campuses are similar. If food and dorm costs can be reduced or subsidized, both provide the kind of space and inspiration necessary for large-scale, 24-7 education enrichment and hands-on staff training.  

There are too many lost learning opportunities for kids and adults during the summer. Creating new and leveraging existing summer camp opportunities should be a priority for education leaders. If we can break down barriers and put in the hard work during the summer, then, like LeBron James, our kids and staff will succeed when it matters most. 


Aaron Dworkin is committed to serving and supporting at-risk youth during out-of-school time hours. He is Executive Vice-President for the ASAS National Network.


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