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With Say Yes’ help, district may finally nail summer education

It’s called summer “camp,” not summer school.

There’s still a daily dose of reading and math, but there’s also more fun stuff to do to keep the kids coming back.

And instead of operating from school buildings, the free summer programs are run out of dozens of neighborhood churches and community centers across Buffalo.

Those are some of the new elements of the revamped summer school program the Buffalo Public Schools kicked off this week for nearly 1,800 elementary students at 57 sites around the city.

The district hopes to write a new chapter in summer learning, which has faced repeated criticism by parents who complained the summer programs have been poorly organized and run during the past few years.

This year, school officials think they have a better model.

“I think so,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash. “It’s costly, but it’s important. We know summer-learning loss is a real phenomenon for our children, particularly those in poverty.”

The biggest change for the summer has been the district’s partnership with Say Yes to Education, the non-profit that offers college scholarships to city graduates.

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Related: More Buffalo grads going to college through Say Yes

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Say Yes stepped in to jointly fund summer school and help provide more consistency for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

In 2012, the district canceled elementary summer school and sent students home with worksheet packets instead.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Pamela Brown made an aggressive push for elementary summer school. More than 9,571 children were registered, but fewer than half showed up the first week and even fewer stayed.

In 2014, the district said it couldn’t afford to pay for summer school. That resulted in a last-minute funding commitment of $1.2 million by Say Yes to keep the programs going. Roughly 6,400 students registered, but attendance fell below 4,000 by the fourth week of the program.

In 2015, the district decided once again to drop summer school for elementary students, citing the high cost and the high attrition rates, but Say Yes stepped in again with an infusion of a half-million dollars.

In exchange, the two sides agreed to a multi-year contract to provide summer learning opportunities for children, with the district picking up a larger share of the tab each year.

“We recognize the importance of continued learning and engagement through the summer months so that students don’t experience learning loss and are all ready for the next school year come September,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.

The district and Say Yes started planning for summer school in the fall and instead of making it only about academics, organizers incorporated recreation and art classes and field trips in hopes of addressing the attendance problems of past summers.

“What I think appealed most to parents is the 'whole child’ approach to the summer camps,” said Larry Scott, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization.

The district contracts with community-based organizations to operate summer camps at 57 sites, up from 36 last year. Two-thirds of the locations are open from 8 a.m. to noon, while 21 have extended hours to 7 p.m., thanks to additional funding from Erie County Youth Services.

Each site has at least one certified teacher to lead the academic instruction, Rust said.

“It may still need to be worked on and tweaked, but at least we have something to work on,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

Radford believes the numbers may be down this year because some families have lost confidence in the district due to the poor summer programs of the past. However, Radford on Wednesday encouraged parents to sign up their kids for slots still available.

Cash, Mayor Byron W. Brown and other school officials on Wednesday visited the summer camp at Mount Olive Baptist Church on East Delavan Avenue, where there were 110 children for the second day of camp.

A normal day includes arrival by 8 a.m., when they students are fed breakfast, said Holly Cercone, camp coordinator. They get 45 minutes of reading followed by 45 minutes of math. After that, there’s organized recreation time and other activities, such as arts and crafts and introduction to theater. The students get lunch by 11:30 a.m. and by the time they leave at noon they should be tired and ready for a nap, Cercone said.

“We don’t want the kids to come and think it’s just more school,” Cercone said, “or they won’t show up.”

The camps run Monday through Friday until Aug. 12.

email: jrey@buffnews.com