Are your kids “free” or “booked” this summer? The answer may depend on your family income.

My kids have always had their summers filled with day camp programs, most of which are provided our local Recreation and Parks Department. We’ve also done camps at ACT (American Conservatory Theater), the Marin Mammal Center and the Chrissy Field Center. Over the years, my they have learned rock climbing, video making, opera singing, archery, sculpture, track and kite-flying.

So it goes without saying, my kids do AMAZING things every year! And I hear similar stories from most of my middle-income/affluent friends.

This year, though, I realized that something I take for granted, isn’t accessible to all kids, and especially low-income kids. In talking to families at my daughters’ school, I was shocked to learn just how many of my friends kids were NOT connected to some form of summer programming.

Michael A. Johnson, an educator (former school teacher and current superintendent) and adjunct professor of Science Education wrote about this on his education blog:

Summertime and the student learning loss is easy… Part 1

“To break down the very complex “child learning” process, into two general categories. There is formal learning, which takes place at school; and then there is informal learning that includes places like public libraries, aquariums, museums, nature walks, stamp collecting, theater, scouting, dance, music, art lessons, STEM camps, creative writing, educational games & toys, chess playing, and reading for fun, etc. Now my Deweyian (John Dewey) instincts causes me to have a problem with the division between these two modes of learning; but that is a discussion for another day.

It is enough to say that a child’s learning does not end when they exit the school building. It is also important to note that these two learning systems are inseparable; however they are only formally measured (tested) in the formal school system!…”

Too Many Invisible Barriers to Summer Learning…

Mr. Johnson is right. Many non-college educated families don’t know about all of the informal educational opportunities that exist. Even if they DID know, most high quality programming is expensive (I’ve spent upwards of $2K for two kids including morning and aftercare!) There is simply NO WAY most of my low-income friends could afford these programs for their kids.

Some folks stress the availability of scholarship programs. The reality is, many of these scholarships are limited, or they do not cover enough of the fees to make programs truly affordable. Additionally, some programming does not provide before or aftercare options and thus requires children to have parents who can afford to have Stay-at-Home-Moms (or Dads), or hire Nannies to pick kids up at 2 or 3pm each day. This is simply NOT feasible for parents working 9-5 jobs.

SF Recreation and Parks Department has solved many of these problems. They offer some of the best scholarships around*, covering from 50%-100% of tuition. (That’s FREE people!) They also offer before and aftercare, for a fee. (See the asterisk below for more info.)

Unfortunately, most of the families I’ve spoken to aren’t even aware programs exist due to limited computer connectivity. This becomes an overwhelming barrier when so many opportunities are primarily advertised online. You can’t sign up for opportunities you don’t know about.

RPD Waiting

Registration for highly sought-after programs is also not equitable when registration is so impacted that you need two computers and a tablet just to log on to the registration site when it opens. I recently learned I am NOT the only parent in this city at 10am on Camp Registration Day trying to log into SF Recreation and Parks Department online registration system. We have also tried to game the system by waiting online up to one hour early, while concurrently trying to log on via an iPhone or tablet.

When we have gotten into the more popular programs, I always noticed there are very few Black and Brown faces. I’m sure this is not a coincidence. (Rec and Park… Are you listening?)

We Can Complain or Take Action

Summer programming is just ONE MORE example of the invisible barriers our system has constructed to unfairly advantage some children over others. We can blame Black and Brown families (as some affluent parent leaders do) for their lack of representation in well-resourced programs and schools, our we can wring our hands and act like these inequities are a foregone conclusion.

Or we can take ACTION!

In response to my concerns last May, I invited the Coordinator of our local Recreation Center, Jennifer Hom of the Betty Ann Ong Chinatown Recreation Center, to my daughters’ school and invited 10 families I knew to come meet her. Fortunately, we also have an AWESOME school social worker who is was also working on sharing information about summer opportunities.

In my outreach, I especially focused on families I knew who were low-income with limited computer access. As a result of our efforts (Go TEAM!), we got 10-20 kids registered in programs, and parents are reporting their children are having a wonderful summer.

Let’s be a Part of the Solution!

Here are some things YOU can do to make “informal” summer learning a right and not a privilege:

Parents! Look out for your kids, and help other “less-connected” parents in your network. 

“Each One, Teach One” is an African-American proverb. We need to help our brothers and sisters learn about summer education opportunities for our kids. Just think what would happen if every one of us helped at least one more family get our kids into quality summer programming. Check out loads of informal summer activities here!)

One idea: Site and district parent groups, including PTA/O, SSC, AAPAC and ELAC can help promote summer programming within parent communication networks like WeChat and parent email groups. Make it a goal for every parent to sign up on or two other families in summer programs, with a focus on Black, Latino and new-immigrant families, etc.

Educators! It’s time to “own” the problem

We can’t leave it up to families. It’s unrealistic to expect them to advocate for resources or opportunities they don’t know even know about, or they have no way of accessing. Every school should have a plan to ensure ALL KIDS are enrolled in high quality programming over the summer.

One idea: SFUSD could task all parent liaisons and social workers to ensure all low-income kids are registered for summer classes, with a focus on kids that may fall through the cracks, e.g. rising 6th and 9th graders who are between schools, foster kids, kids in transitional housing, etc.

Summer Program Directors! (ESPECIALLY those that are city funded!) It’s not enough to offer programs and just SAY they are accessible because they are posted online.

Every program director should be looking at results by asking, “Who is accessing our programs?” If program demographics don’t represent the racial, cultural, or socioeconomic demographics of the cities they are in, we should find out why folks aren’t signing up. If programs receive city funding, we should be targeting even higher numbers of Black/Brown/low-income kids to make up for the fact that they may have fewer options.

One idea: Set aside a portion of enrollment spaces (say 20%) for students on scholarship for ALL high-priority programs that receive city funding. (SF Recreation and Parks Department, I’m talking about YOU!) SF RPD overnight camps, and Camps at Randall Museum, Planet-Granite, Sharon Art Studio, etc. all book up within the very first hour that enrollment opens up. This would create a much needed cushion for low-income families to register their kids.

I’ll be posting more about summer “informal” learning opportunities. In the meantime…

What are you doing to ensure your kids/students have access to AWESOME opportunities this summer? If you work in the non-profit or social sector, how are you ensuring low-income kids have access?

*From the SF Rec and Parks website:

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department offers assistance to eligible San Francisco residents through its Recreation Scholarship Fund. In order to qualify, the total household income must be below 200% of current Federal Poverty rates. To find out if you are eligible and to apply for a scholarship for your registration, please call (415) 831-2717 or come to McLaren Lodge Annex, 501 Stanyan Street (parking lot is on Stanyan between Hayes and Fell), from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM PST, excluding holidays. You may also apply for a scholarship at any recreation center. Please bring a photo ID, proof of residency such as a utility bill and proof of enrollment in any government subsidy program. Other documentation may be acceptable. Please call for more information.

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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Social Emotional, Social Justice Parenting

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