$250,000 gift made to city reading camp Pledge from financier could rise by $500,000 if companies donate; 'Very good way to give'; Program, in 2nd year, is for 4,000 city pupils entering third grade


A new nonprofit institute financed by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros has pledged up to $750,000 to continue a unique summer camp that helps children improve their reading skills.

The camp, in its second year, is open to city children between the second and third grades who need help in reading. Baltimore school tests show that 4,680 second-graders -- about 70 percent -- are reading below grade level.

Of those, said Sally Michel, organizer of SuperKids Camp, "I think we can do 4,000" at a nominal price for parents. The eight-week enrichment program begins June 29. Last year's cost was $5 a week.

SuperKids Camp attracted interest from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore because of its mix of reading instruction, extracurricular activities and visits to cultural sites, including the Baltimore Zoo, Center Stage and Maryland Institute, College of Art.

"The academic achievement agenda is very interesting and could be an important way to break the cycle of failure," said Diana Morris, the institute's director. "Involving so many institutions to host these children is a wonderful use of community resources."

Morris said the gift was structured to encourage corporations to match a $500,000 challenge grant.

As it did last year, the camp will begin every morning with two hours of reading class in small groups. Popular teaching techniques and drills -- including Open Court, Direct Instruction and Sylvan Learning -- are part of the program.

For the rest of the day, it resembles a more traditional summer camp, with sailing, swimming, dance, art and horseback riding among the extracurricular activities planned by Michel and the Parks and People Foundation, another nonprofit organization helping with the camp.

The camp day ends with a story read aloud.

"Every day starts with reading and every day ends with reading," said Michel, a volunteer who serves on the board of Parks and People Foundation.

Receiving help at age 8 is particularly important for meeting the national goal -- widely promoted by President Clinton and education experts -- of reading by age 9. "Research shows that children from less-affluent homes lose a lot of [educational] ground during that summer," said Morris, referring to the time between second and third grade.

Soros, a 67-year-old financier who lives in New York, has taken a strong interest in funding social improvement programs in Baltimore, including drug addiction treatment and work-force development. In August, he announced plans to begin the institute and spend $25 million on programs here over five years.

In explaining why the SuperKids Camp is one of the first initiatives to win a major grant, Morris said it fits well with the institute's mission of concentrating on people who are "marginalized."

Michel, 60, said the Soros grant brings this year's program "halfway home" toward her fund-raising goal of $4 million. She still needs about $2 million from public and private sources to be able to run a camp for 4,000 youngsters. The cost per child is about $1,000.

Michel said she expects city and federal funds to cover costs for transportation, meals, and staffing by AmeriCorps members.

Private foundations have contributed to SuperKids Camp, said Michel, but charitable and government dollars will not be counted toward the Soros matching grant. His outright gift is for $250,000. He will also match every dollar given by businesses, up to $500,000.

"It's a very good way to give," said Michel, an energetic woman who works out of her Guilford home. "I think the match is a wonderful concept to involve the corporate community." Before making the grant public, Morris met with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke last week to confer with him about the city's commitment to the camp.

"There has to be sustained support from the public sector at the XTC outset," she said. "It's too big a ticket for the private and philanthropic sector to support."

Last year the mayor praised the camp and said he hoped to see it expand.

For more information on SuperKids Camp, call 410-448-5663, Ext. 7.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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