Summer education grows for low-income kids

One local program had nation’s largest academic gains last summer.

More than 600 lower-income students in Montgomery County will have new access to summer learning programs this year, as educators and donors try to limit the “summer slide,” where students lose ground academically when school is out.

The BELL program (Building Educated Leaders for Life) will launch its first local summer efforts in the Mad River and Trotwood-Madison school districts, offering a free, full-day, five-week program to 250 students in each district. BELL has programs in 18 cities.

Jody McCurdy, director of curriculum and instruction for Trotwood schools, said students will get a 90-minute daily reading and math block, but she said BELL is more than just summer school — adding field trips, hands-on STEM experiments, character education, and visits from arts organizations and a martial arts training group.

“Many families simply can’t afford to pay for summer activities that open their children’s eyes to the joy of learning outside the classroom,” said Trotwood-Madison Superintendent Kevin Bell. “When children study science in the park, and math at museums, we ignite their curiosity.”

Vectren has committed $100,000 for each of the next three summers to fund the BELL program, with their contribution matched by Dayton’s Iddings Foundation. Each school district is contributing $80,000 and will provide transportation and meals to students, and the Montgomery County Educational Service Center is helping as well.

The Mad River BELL program is already full for this summer, and McCurdy said she was processing the final applications for Trotwood’s program Friday.

The other program expanding this summer is the Freedom School model launched by the Children’s Defense Fund and organized locally by United Way of Greater Dayton.

There will be four Freedom Schools in Dayton again this summer, but new sites will be added in New Lebanon and the Northridge, meaning a total of 350 students served – up from 200 last summer, according to Tanisha Jumper, United Way vice president.

Freedom Schools are a six-week program where trained college interns teach a specific reading curriculum, supplemented by field trips and other activities designed to build a love of learning. The program is funded by the United Way, multiple Montgomery County agencies, the city of Dayton and the sites themselves.

Grace United Methodist Church hosts a Freedom School that last summer showed the largest academic gain of any site in the nation, with students’ reading scores advancing by more than two grade levels. Sherry Gale, pastor of Grace UMC, credited United Way and Omega Baptist Church for inspiring her church to participate.

“Some of the older ones, the sixth, seventh, eighth graders, are a little reluctant at 8 a.m. in the summer,” Gale said. “But by the end of first week, everyone wants to be there. … The model is really about self-empowerment and getting young people to believe in themselves and what they can do. And they really start to come alive.”

Jumper said all six sites are full, but students can be put on a waiting list by calling the United Way at 225-3048. The group is also looking for volunteer guest readers for all six sites.

Ritika Kurup, assistant director of Dayton’s ReadySetSoar education group, said the BELL and Freedom School efforts are important not just in engaging more kids, but because there is research supporting their effectiveness.

Kurup said the Dayton area needs more highly rated programs like these, pointing out that this summer’s 650 new summer learning spots have been snapped up already, with dozens more on waiting lists.

“I’m very excited about what we can offer this summer,” Kurup said. “But we still have a long way to go.”

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