Most parents should be so lucky as to have a child like 8-year-old Heather Jones.
So great is her love of learning that she's spending half her summer break reading books, doing math problems and writing poems -- all part of the Helping Hands Summer Enrichment Program, a camp that mixes the rigors of schooling with the fun of playing.
The camp is the only one in Howard County that has full-time teachers, who lead language arts, math and other classes to prepare students for the new school year.
"I'm not the kind of person who likes to play out all day and not work," says Heather, sitting at a desk with a pen in hand to recopy a poem she wrote, her latest project in her third-grade language arts class. There are more than 110 other children from all parts of Howard County who are also attending the program, sponsored by the Helping Hands Foundation, a nonprofit, Columbia-based parents organization.
Students from prekindergarten to sixth grade study during the first half of the day, when they are expected to come fully prepared to learn. The older ones read novels such as "Tuck Everlasting," "Sounder" and "Thank You, Jackie Robinson." Some end the day with homework -- the bane of many students here.
"We don't penalize them if it isn't done," says Patricia Dodson, who is a sixth-grade reading teacher at Wilde Lake Middle School.
It's not all work and no play. Students go swimming, work on computers and play games during the afternoon. They also go on outings, including trips to Piney Run State Park in Sykesville and the National Zoo and the Smithsonian Institute, both in Washington. They'll also be taking tours of the Afro-American newspaper and the Urban League's Underground Railroad display, both in Baltimore, to study African-American culture and history. They recently completed a tour of the Pizza Hut in Columbia, where they learned about the business and how to make their own pizzas.
What is successful about the summer program is the learning, says Ms. Dodson. "The teachers experience real success at the growth the children get, both academically and socially," she said.
Heather, who is entering third-grade at Dasher Green Elementary School in Columbia, doesn't mind that she's doing schoolwork at a time when others are romping around outside -- in fact, she even likes paper and pencil work. "My favorite thing to do is write poems," she says. "We have different activities we do. Sometimes we go outside."
Other students are here for a variety of reasons. Nine-year-old Tae Bum Oh's mother sent him to the camp to improve his English and prepare him for school next fall. "My mom wants me to be a good boy and turn out very good," says Tae, who left South Korea to come to Columbia last year. He hates lugging books, papers and markers to the program every morning, but he particularly likes snack time.
Nine-year-old Rayna DuBose is brushing up on her math skills in teacher Keith West's class, learning long division, multiplication, rounding and other concepts she'll need next year as a Dasher Green Elementary School fifth-grader.
"I'd rather do schoolwork," she says. "It's fun. You learn more. You can have fun just going here."
Eleven-year-old Freddie Pruitt likes the fact that he can remember schoolwork better by going to school in the summer. "It's helping me to remember a lot of it," he says. "I like the math."
Learning to be friends
Not only do students like the program, but its six teachers do as well. "It's good for so many of them because they come from different schools and they learn to be friends," said Lisa Gottlieb, an Owen Brown Middle School eighth-grade English teacher. "They can see that school ends, and that doesn't mean you do no reading and writing."
Helping Hands Foundation, a nonprofit parents organization, sponsors the summer program, now in its fourth year. The foundation also runs a highly successful Saturday school, where more than 20 parents and teachers volunteer to tutor more than 250 students during the school year.
Ionnie Butler, Helping Hands founder, started the summer camp when parents in the Saturday program said that they needed a place to "academically challenge" their children during the three-month summer break.
"It gives parents a good sense of security that their children are learning during the summer," Mrs. Butler said.