Entering a Birmingham elementary school in June, one might expect to hear nothing but silence; but on a Tuesday morning last month, Oliver Elementary in Crestwood was just as busy as ever. In a computer lab on the second floor, Henry Thornton, an intern for the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), was quietly conducting a room full of whisper-reading, finger-counting Kindergarten and first-grade students through two 34-question tests—one in reading and one in math. While the tests were being administered over desktop computers, Tamarah Burney—Birmingham City Schools teacher and Camp Director for Summer Advantage—walked around the room to assist the students and give praise for good behavior. “Let me see if I can catch anyone else doing what they’re supposed to be doing!” she said, as she punched a hole in a smiling first-grader’s index card. He’d get to redeem that punch in a gift shop on a field trip the next week, along with his fellow classmates who got punches in their cards.
At Summer Advantage—a program made possible through partnerships with Oliver Elementary, the Birmingham Board of Education, and the SAIL Collaborative—students receive research- and standards-based instruction in literacy and math in the mornings, and participate in various enrichment classes in the afternoon. On Fun Fridays, students engage with their community through field trips, guest speakers, and community service projects. This year, the six-week program received funding from the Belk Foundation and the Mike and Gillian Goodrich Foundation through SAIL, or Summer Adventures in Learning—a partnership of 11 funders in the Birmingham area hosted by the Birmingham Education Foundation.
Over the past four years, SAIL has created a network of high-quality summer learning programs for youth in Birmingham City Schools and Alabama’s Black Belt region. SAIL was developed in response to a survey of 37 Birmingham area summer programs, conducted by the National Summer Learning Association in 2011. After reviewing the results of that survey in 2012, three funders worked informally with 12 programs throughout the city. This summer, SAIL has expanded to include 12 partners who have awarded $862,000 in grants to 36 different programs in Birmingham and the surrounding areas for the summer of 2016. In addition, SAIL provides a quality assurance framework to all its programs, including pre- and post-assessment of students—designed to aid programs in tailoring instruction to each student, and to help administrators address issues and recognize successes in their programs after summer ends.
The assessments, administered by PARCA, were provided by SAIL as a component of its quality assurance framework. Mature programs typically record gains of 2-3 months in reading and 2-3 months in math over the summer (4-6 week sessions), as compared to the 2-3 month losses expected for children who miss out on summer learning. This year, SAIL hired its first dedicated staff member, Suzy Harris, who joined the Collaborative after 24 years as an educator, administrator, and curator at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
While the mission of SAIL is primarily concerned with the education aspect of its summer programs, the programs aim for a “school within a camp” model—combining academic programming with physical activity, healthy meals, enrichment programming, and an emphasis on character development. Among the 36 programs working with SAIL this summer are several that incorporate elements of traditional summer sports camps into their educational framework.
“Lacrosse is the carrot,” said Tom Lewis, founder and director of Neighborhood Academy, “ and you have to mix fun with learning. At the end of the day, kids are kids, and they want to have fun during the summer.” After 10 years as a lacrosse coach for Mountain Brook Schools, Mr. Lewis founded Neighborhood Academy in 2014 as a year-round program, aiming to provide middle-school students with substantive after-school education, sweetened by a fun and active incentive in lacrosse. “Seventy-five percent of our time is spent in academics and life skills,” said Lewis. “The other twenty-five percent of the time, we are outside teaching the boys and girls how to play lacrosse. We believe that academics and lacrosse are a great combination and will give our students more opportunities to succeed, not only in high school, but also in college.” During the summer, Neighborhood Academy operates three days a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at four locations; Ensley Recreation Center, Tuggle Elementary, the YMCA Youth Center, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center. The program employs three Teach for America educators, along with a retired educator and volunteers from the Junior League of Birmingham, and teaches math, reading, public speaking, and geography, along with skills like cooking and small engine repair.
Another sports-themed summer learning program that has joined SAIL is the American Baseball Foundation’s Baseball & Academic Skills Instructional Course (BASIC). Founder Dave Osinski started ABF in Birmingham in 1994, and the BASIC Summer program was developed with the objective of preventing summer learning loss among at-risk children in the city. In the BASIC curriculum, students study reading and
math while connecting those skills to the sport of baseball, through materials like biographies of famous players, and math problems on scores and stats. The schedule for the month-long program alternates hourly between academics and sports for 6 ½ hours a day, four days a week, with fun field trips sprinkled in. On June 22, 160 BASIC Summer students from locations at Hudson K-8, St. Aloysius Catholic School, and C.A. Brown Elementary met at Regions Field downtown to compete in both academic and athletic competitions. Julius “Coach J” Burrell, who has been working with ABF since 1999, threw big green softballs to excited 2nd grade batters in a 10 a.m. “Reds vs. Yankees” showdown. “Today is a fun day,” said Mr. Osinski, watching from the baseline, “but the important thing is that the kids are thinking about their lessons and their schoolbooks while they’re on the field.”
At Camp NorthStar in West Birmingham, students in grades 1-8 get to begin their days with soccer clinics and swimming lessons before moving on to academic classes in the afternoons. The program lasts six weeks, and serves 37 students. Recently, as a part of the camp’s “Reading Club,” students wrote to professional footballer Satara Murray in Liverpool, England, and received correspondence back from her. They have also read biographies of superstars like David Beckham and Lionel Messi, and learned to spell the names of different animals and parts of the human body. “My favorite part was making NorthStar Zoo,” said fifth-year camper Keranique, pointing to a poster covered in drawings of exotic animals, their names labeled neatly under each illustration. Another favorite activity among the students was the camp’s recent field trip to Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, where campers got to try out their swimming skills in a beautiful natural environment. Paul Neville, who founded NorthStar Youth Ministries in 1996, said “Tying academics together with sports keeps the kids from thinking of Camp NorthStar as just a summer school. Summer programs have got to feel a little bit different.”
Mr. Osinski of the American Baseball Foundation, Mr. Neville of NorthStar, and Mr. Lewis of Neighborhood Academy have all said that components of SAIL’s quality assurance framework, specifically pre- and post-assessments, have helped them build on the successes of their programs. ABF’s 2016 flagship program recorded large gains for 60 students, averaging 5 months worth of new knowledge in both reading and math. According to Mr. Neville, the results of last year’s assessments spurred NorthStar to incorporate even more education in its program than it had previously. He noted, “Based on the test results we can work individually with students who might be falling behind the rest of the group.” Mr. Lewis said that the testing administered by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) is “a key way for Neighborhood Academy and our funders to get measurable data upon which we can gauge our progress. We learn from that and make changes.” On top of that he added, “We don’t have that tool without SAIL. The Birmingham community absolutely needs SAIL during the summer.”
This piece was written by Walt Evans, Summer Writing Fellow with the Birmingham Education Foundation, and rising senior at Sewanee: The University of the South.