Groups Around Athens Turn Focus to Equality in Summer Learning

By Alex Estroff

In a drab warehouse located off the Athens Perimeter between a Dollar General and a Hardee’s, the attorneys of Morgan & Morgan Law Firm stack children’s books into boxes.

“Man, did any of you guys ever read the Goosebumps books as a kid?” Andrew Morgan, office manager for the firm, asked his colleagues as they scrupulously minded the detailed instructions they were provided with before they got to stacking.

The firm visited the warehouse because it has a partnership with Books for Keeps. The firm donates to the organization every time someone refers someone else to Morgan & Morgan. During this visit, they were to box as many of the over 100,000 books coating the warehouse’s 30-foot cement walls as they could. These books needed to be placed within boxes with the utmost care so that they could be distributed undamaged to local schools for the upcoming book drives in May. There was no room for recklessness for these lawyers.

Founded in 2009, Books for Keeps gives children from low-income families books to read over the summer in an effort to end the annual learning loss these children suffer. While they are not in school, kids simply regress in the learning they did during the year unless they engage in some sort of intellectual activity, like reading.

Books for Keeps director, Leslie Hale, explains that this “summer slide” is more pronounced on students coming from poorer households.

“You take a child from a poor community and you take a child from a wealthy community, and they’re going to gain roughly the same amount of knowledge during the school year,” she said, citing academic research on the subject.

The difference is that, during the summer, wealthier students have access to things that allow them to make strides forward that their lower-income classmates do not, simply because they do not have the financial means to afford them.

The lack of access to educational camps, tutoring, and books during the summer is what creates a gap in literacy within students in the short run, and income in the long run. By no means is this a new a problem, but groups around Athens, like Books for Keeps, are now addressing it with new solutions.

Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services approaches this issue through the scholarships they provide for their summer day camps.

These day camps have become very popular across Athens, as they explore topics such as history, science, and art and try to do so in a seamlessly educational way. They have even been recognized recently by the Georgia Recreation and Park Association for the quality of their programming.

Cathy Padgett, public information coordinator for Leisure Services, claims that these camps can be simultaneously educational and enjoyable.

“They don’t realize they’re learning because it’s presented in this fun way,” Padgett said. “If you’re not careful you might learn something.”

She cited the popularity of camps such as Zoo Camp and 50 States in 50 Days Camp as proof that these programs can both entertain as well as slow the summer slide.

The problem, however, is that all of these camps require a registration fee, which could potentially exclude lower-income children from participation, thus accentuating the issue of income inequality that Athens is far too familiar with.

Padgett assured, though, that no child would be turned away if they met the financial need criteria for a scholarship. Last year, Leisure Services offered over $250,000 in scholarships and, according the Athens-Clarke County budget summary, actually ran a deficit because of that.

“It is a loss for the department but a tremendous gain for the community,” Padgett says.

Even with Athens-Clarke County’s best efforts, a sizable need for educational programming in the summer remains.

Beginning this summer, Camp DIVE (Discover, Inquire, Voice, Explore) will launch, hoping to overcome the summer slide, particularly for kids who are in need, while also providing an opportunity for UGA students.

Since 2008, UGA has been dedicated to creating a bridge between the College of Education and the Clarke County School District. Through this partnership, College of Education students have been able to actually engage with local Clarke County children.

This partnership is now extending to a summer camp that Dr. Janna Dresden, the director of the partnership program, says will engage and educate kids in a unique way while providing UGA students firsthand experience with children. The underlying purpose of Camp DIVE is to advance a sense of civic action within the children. But the theme for each camp will be entirely dependent on the kids’ interests, giving them control over the topics with which they interact.

For example, if the teacher brings up global conflicts as a possible topic, the children are free to take that general theme of how people treat other people and say they would rather talk about bullying or violence at school. The kids then do activities around the topics they request.

And most importantly, it’s free.

“Kids need this,” Dresden said. “Especially kids who come from families that don’t have the financial resources that other families do.”

The camp will be financed entirely from existing resources the College of Education and the school district already have, so no financial burden will be placed on a child who wishes to participate.

Whether it be giving time that would otherwise be spent in a law firm, swallowing a yearly deficit, or molding a curriculum around what the kids want to do and not the teachers, it is clear that people around Athens are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of children. For years, the tragic disproportionate effect of the summer slide on lower-income children was seemingly neglected. Recent local efforts suggest that is changing.

Perhaps these sacrifices are inspired by the wish for every child to be able to experience that feeling of joy we get when remember our favorite childhood book, like Goosebumps. Or perhaps these acts of selflessness are rooted in a fundamental desire to live in a society that has equality, beginning with the youngest members of it.

Either way, as Dresden said, “everybody learns best when everybody learns together.”

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