In its 21st summer, SuperKids Camp program helps kids avoid "the summer slide." (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun video)
Twila Mohammed wanted her children to spend their summer break immersed in entertaining and engaging books. Instead, she found herself with two reluctant readers.
The Northeast Baltimore mother was undeterred. She sent her son and daughter off to a summer school program focused on reading. Six weeks later, they have made some inroads.
"I have not had to force them to read, so that has definitely changed," Mohammed said. Her children now compete with other students to see how many books they can read by the end of the summer.
She credits Superkids Camp, a six-week summer-education program in several neighborhood schools across the city.
The program, run by the Parks and People Foundation,combines traditional academics focused on improving reading and literacy with outdoor activities and field trips. The goal is to make sure students are reading by the third grade, a time shown to be critical to a child's future academic success. Research shows students who can't read on grade level by then are unlikely to catch up later.
Another objective is to help stem the loss of academic skills that children can experience over long summer breaks if they're not involved in educationally enriching activities.
The camp was founded 20 years ago on the belief that the city's children would have a better shot at long-term academic success if they could read better. Administrators say testing data shows it is effective: About 98 percent of students leave the program having either maintained or increased their reading proficiency.
The city school system helped fund the program at the start. At its height, nearly 2,000 students attended Superkids at 16 schools. It now receives funding through state grants and private donations. Four hundred attend the program at five neighborhood elementary schools and one private school.
Six hundred slots were available this year. Superkids director Alicia Copeland says she believes parents are sending children to other programs or camps that end later in the summer because the new school year won't begin until after Labor Day, under a new state policy.
Research shows that helping students maintain their skills over the summer has a powerful effect on long-term outcomes. Students from low-income families learn at the same rate as peers from wealthier families during the school year, but then fall behind academically during the summer. Johns Hopkins researchers have blamed the disparity on differing access to summer programs, camps and other activities that stimulate students' brains.
Copeland says she has seen the effect of a summer without stimulation as a classroom teacher in Baltimore County.
"We hate the first three weeks because we end up teaching the skills over again," she said.
Copeland now works full-time for the Parks and People Foundation, but her goal is to help spare her former colleagues the need for such review. Superkids' keeps the student-teacher ratio down to six to one by supplementing certified teachers with volunteers, college interns and older students with the city jobs program Youthworks.
Anthony Burgos, an assistant director of Superkids, said the low ratio allows the staff to deal more effectively with children who present behavioral challenges that get in the way of learning. He had to calm down a boy at Creative City Public Charter School in Park Heights who had been acting out on the bus on the way to Superkids.
"It's a relaxed, open atmosphere." he said. The staff tries to keep the program enjoyable: "We want to trick them to learn."
Across the hall from the first graders at the Creative City Public Charter, nine-year-old Peyton Davis was learning about biodiversity and reading about life on earth.
Peyton, who is Mohammed's daughter, said the program has helped.
"If your reading level is higher, you will get more interested," she said. But she's still worried about new multiplication problems she'll have to tackle in fourth grade next month, and is glad that they also work on math problems some mornings.
The program's environmental curriculum adapts the concepts taught in classrooms in the morning to outside activities in the afternoon. Students explore the natural world in the gardens and meadows at the Parks and People Foundation's nine-acre campus in West Baltimore.
On a recent morning, eight-year-old Trionna Wingate crawled into a teepee-like structure made of twigs, branches and twine that is known as the reading nest. She could see the sun and the sky through the twigs, and imagined reading there if she had not been surrounded by several other campers.
Students who said they had never seen a tomato, watermelon or cucumber could gently push the leaves aside to eye the growing vegetables and fruit, or goggle at the bugs consuming a Brussels sprout. There's a meadow to wander through, a place to run and laugh while squirting each other with water.
The students will also learn about the campus vegetable garden, dip for crayfish in streams, and visit Leakin, Druid Hill and Patterson parks.