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In-Depth: Officials Want More Summer Camps to Ease Back-to-School Transition

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Summer break is winding down for students across central Kentucky, and they’ll soon return to lessons and homework. For many students, transitioning back to school means relearning forgotten material, but educational experts and state lawmakers hope to reduce that learning loss by keeping kids active throughout the summer.

The past few weeks have been busy at the William Wells Brown Community Center in Lexington. The community center offers activities to kids in elementary, middle, and high school Monday through Friday.

Director Jill Chenault-Wilson says it’s modeled after the federal “Let’s Move” campaign.

“We’d rather them be here engaging in educational and recreational activities than being home, being couch potatoes or fending for themselves.”

The center’s calendar makes time for crafts, sports, and a book club.

“I like coming to play and do games,” says 8-year-old Tania Woodall, who has been going to William Wells Brown all summer.

Operated by Lexington’s Department of Parks & Recreation, everything at the community center’s summer program is free of charge, including an afternoon meal for kids.

Summer Learning Loss

Linda Robinson, a consultant who oversees after school programs for the Kentucky Department of Education, says when students don’t read or stay active during the summer, learning loss sets in. Kids from low-income families are even more at risk.

“Students that are already struggling are going to take a major hit in the summer. And they’re going to come back in the fall maybe as much as two grade levels behind if they were behind already,” says Robinson.

This year the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation (SB 95) encouraging school districts to establish summer learning camps with an emphasis in the core academic areas of math and reading. The goal is to track information and assessments about how well students are learning.

“I think most of them have data, but as far as analyzing that data to determine the effectiveness of what they have done, I’m not really sure, not in a formal process I will say that,” says Donna Tackett, who will oversee implementation of SB 95 at the Department of Education.

The summer learning camps should not be confused with summer school. Tackett says teachers and camp organizers will have flexibility to incorporate fun activities such as music, art, sports, and field trips.

New Law, No New Funds

Despite unanimous votes in the Kentucky House and Senate to pass the summer learning camp legislation, lawmakers appropriated no state funding to support it. School districts that take part are supposed to use federal money known as Title I, which they already use for other programs and staff.

“One of the challenges with summer programs is things like Title I funding can be used for summer but they don’t have to be,” says Jeff Smink of the National Summer Learning Association. “So one of the first things is to make sure that the state and the school districts really prioritize this and make it clear why it’s important that existing funds should be used for summer programs.”

So far, no Kentucky school district has notified the state of plans to open a summer learning program under the guidelines outlined in the new law.

To really be effective in preventing summer learning loss, experts recommend the camps run for at least 6 weeks. And Smink says Kentucky educators need to start planning their summer activities by early this fall.

Lexington native Brenna Angel anchored local morning newscasts for WUKY through May 13. She joined the station in March 2010 after previously working for WHAS-AM in Louisville.