When Pauline Perna’s two grandchildren walk to her house in downtown Niagara Falls, they pass a park where drug dealers sell cocaine and smoke weed.
The 12- and 11-year-old siblings come from a low-income family, like almost all of their peers at Niagara Charter School. Because Jacqulyn and Jerry Phillips’ parents work a lot, they often stay at Perna’s house. And their typical summer day involves delivering the Tonawanda News with her and staying around adults. It’s safer that way, Perna says.
Meanwhile, children in the suburbs – from middle- to high-income families – often go to summer camp, play outside, and in general, have the opportunity to make academic and social strides. Come September, they’re academically and socially ahead. Summer camp was never an option for the Phillips kids.
Until this summer.
Lynn Kirshey, the Niagara Charter School special-education coordinator, helped raise more than $1,800 to send 15 students to Cradle Beach, a summer camp in Angola that hosts children with disabilities and those from economically disadvantaged families. The camp charges families based on their incomes. About 80 percent of the campers pay $100 for 10 days of camping, which is the rate the Niagara Charter School students received.
“Where they live, in the city, it’s a rough neighborhood,” Perna said. “And a lot of the lower-income families don’t really have choices of getting into a better neighborhood. ... So getting them out of the city and into nature is something that helps teach the kids that there is a different world out there. There is more to the world than just drugs and guns.”
Jacqulyn and Jerry have been at Cradle Beach since July 12, and their last day is Monday.
As Jerry sat outside his cabin Thursday morning, he talked about his favorite parts of Cradle Beach: swimming and playing basketball. But he also said summer camp has taught him lessons that he’ll take with him this coming school year.
“Sometimes, I’m not respectful when I’m mad,” said Jerry, as he admitted to misbehaving in school. At Cradle Beach, he said he has learned to “respect your counselors and do teamwork.”
“Respecting your counselor is just like respecting your teacher, and teamwork is the same thing that you gotta do when you’re in school,” he said.
What Jerry may not realize is that as he comes to understand the concepts of responsibility, respect and teamwork, he’s becoming more qualified to compete against his peers who come from middle- to high-income families in the future.
Kiowa Mt. Pleasant, who just graduated from Niagara Charter School, lives with her great-grandmother in Wheatfield. She barely sees her peers in the summer. Her grandmother spends a lot of time reading on the couch while she plays on the computer, Mt. Pleasant said, so camp has been a thrill. She feels more socially prepared for middle school next year.
“I’m not really a lot, like, sociable,” the 12-year-old said. “But here, I could be, like, whatever – like meet new people all the time. No one here will judge you like they do at other places.”
Jerry and Kiowa are making social strides, as well as academic ones.
This year, Cradle Beach is requiring all campers to participate in activities geared toward learning science, technology, engineering and math, through hands-on experiments. STEM is “where the jobs are for the future,” says Tim Boling, the camp’s executive director.
“A lot of these kids, inner-city kids, poverty-level or below, struggle so much in school because they can’t connect to things,” Kirshey said. “... So this offers them the background knowledge that they can bring to their education. ‘Oh yeah, that’s like what I learned at camp.’ They can connect to it. And that’s when learning happens – when there are connections.”
Most students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation skills during the summer. On top of that, low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, while their middle-class peers make slight gains, according to the National Summer Learning Association.
The association also reports that more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities. Thus, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.
Niagara Charter School counselor Cheri Keetch witnessed one of her troubled students change after the school raised funds to send a few students to Cradle Beach last year.
“He didn’t fly off the handle as much,” she said of him this year. “He was a little bit easier to calm down compared to last year. ... I saw him as a student that grew from fifth grade to sixth grade. It was amazing the turnaround in him.” Keetch said.
Kirshey spent Thursday morning watching Jacqulyn, Jerry, Kiowa and her other 12 students swimming, running around with their new friends, following their counselors’ directions, cleaning their cabins and engaging in academic activities. She’s inspired to continue fundraising for her students to go to Cradle Beach.
Kirshey and Keetch hope to send double the number of students to Cradle Beach next year, and maybe even double that the year after. If more students from Niagara Charter School spend their summers at Cradle Beach, maybe the statistics of lower-income students losing academic and social strides in the summer will begin to change.