Nonprofits Aim To Keep Students Learning With Summer Creative Camps

The nonprofit MECA near downtown Houston offers summer arts camp to students. The United Way of Greater Houston invested $250,000 in summer learning programs at MECA and about 20 other groups this year. The goal is to keep students engaged over the summer, so they don’t start school behind in the fall.
For a lot of families, summer is a time for camp, visits to the neighborhood pool or vacation. Summer is also a critical period in a child's education.

At this summer, camp students are writing their own music — but with computer programming.

It’s at MECA, a community group that promotes the arts.

Some students know how to play a musical instrument. Many don’t know music at all.

Teacher Kevin Bicol checks out the latest creation.

“You got a song already? Alright. What’s the title of your song?”

“Brain explosion because it will blow your mind!”

Bizol says they’re working on programming.

“They’re just using electronics to make music. So the goal of the camp is really to make electronics as an art type deal.”

He says students have to flex their creative muscles. That helps with the more technical stuff.

“I know this stuff will stick because it’s not math problems, it’s not formulas. It’s, ‘I learned how to program because of a song I wrote.’”

Teacher Kevin Bizol
Teacher Kevin Bicol checks out students’ programming on the computer and listens to their song, an electronic rendition of the “My Little Pony” theme song.

Angelina Rabago plays her composition, which ends with a surprising sound.

Or as she puts it: “It had a fart at the end.”

Fun is a big part of this camp. But that’s not what it’s all about.

It’s a way to keep kids learning over the summer, so they don’t fall behind in school.

Angelina is going into fifth grade. She says if she wasn’t at camp she wouldn’t be doing much:

“At home on my laptop, of course. Or checking my phone or something.”

That sounds familiar to Armando Silva, the camp director at MECA.

“What happens a lot when kids are not involved in a project like this, they end up sitting at home. We know that parents take advantage of what we provide at such an inexpensive service because otherwise they’d be at home. They can’t afford to put them in day care. They can’t afford to put them in some of the other camps.”

It’s a problem known as “summer learning loss.”  Think of it as “use it or lose it.”

Here’s how Sarah Pitcock with the National Summer Learning Association explains it to students.

“I say, ‘what do you think LeBron James does in the off-season? Do you think he sits on the couch and eats potato chips? And they so, no, no, no! He practices, he works out. Alright, well summer is your off season. It’s not your chance to sit on the couch and eat potato chips. It’s your chance to get even better.”

Pitcock says decades of research show all kids lose math skills over the summer if they don’t practice. On average it’s about two months’ worth.

When it comes to reading, children from middle and higher income families stay on track or even improve.

students
Sisters Amy Obi, 16, and Ann Obi, 15, are counselors at the MECA summer arts camp. They say it’s important for them to express themselves in creative ways. They attend DeBakey High School for Health Professions.

But poor children fall behind in reading, again about two-months or more.

That might not sound like much.

But it’s a big deal because it’s cumulative, says Cheryl McCallum, the education director at the Children’s Museum of Houston.

“When you look at graphs over years then that gap just continues to increase.”

By the time a low income child is in fifth grade, they can be two and half years behind students in higher income brackets – just because they missed out on learning over the summer.

One study by Johns Hopkins University researcher Karl Alexander found that by ninth grade, summer learning loss accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income students and their more well-to-do peers. What’s more, Alexander found it can impact whether a child ultimately graduates high school or drops out.

The problem needs more attention and preventative action, says Anna Babin, president and CEO with the United Way of Greater Houston.

“This research really kind of prompted us to say we need to get serious about investing some resources this summer to kind of turn the tide on summer learning loss.”

This year the United Way invested $250,000 in different summer programs.

One is with the Children’s Museum of Houston, where the money has helped the museum expand workshops with the YMCA and Chinese Community Center to about 400 children. McCallum says last year, students who participated built up their science skills by 30 percent over the summer.

Another program supported by the United Way is the electronic music camp at MECA…. where some of the music actually starts to sound familiar.

To hear more:

MECA will hold a summer arts camp recital, featuring the students’ electronic music, on Thursday, July 25 at 6 p.m. For more information, contact MECA.

Bio photo of Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for KUHF, including K-12 and higher education.

Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and regularly contributed to WLRN, the local NPR affiliate and Miami Herald news partner...