Easing the summer camp crunch in D.C.

June 28, 2013

School’s out, summer’s on, and I can hardly wait for it to be over.

Summer begins for our family, and many others, in December or January, with the frantic researching, planning and saving that goes into the “camp” season in the District. This year, Nicolas, 9, wanted to attend sports-based camps with his friends, and Elena, 7, had her heart set on sleep-away camp, though she’s on the young side for such an adventure. My ex-husband and I do our best to respond to our kids’ interests during the summer, and we understand how important those nine weeks can be. Yet, despite sharing our expenses and both of us having good jobs, the reality is that summer always pinches.

The costs are shocking. A week’s worth of camp for two children can easily run $1,000. Elena’s sleep-away camp costs $800 per week all by itself. To put this in context, every other summer, my ex-husband and I send the kids to Romania for several weeks to spend time with their grandmother, and it’s cheaper to buy four round-trip tickets to Europe during the high-travel season than it is to keep the kids in Washington.

The level of coordination required to fill an entire day (most camps end at 3 or 4 p.m.; our jobs do not) falls just shy of insanity. There are myriad private summer camps, all of which begin registration six or seven months in advance. But the District? The process of registering for summer camps run through the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation is byzantine at best. It doesn’t open registration for its programs until mid-February. You can register for only certain camps online, but the summer camp office does not guarantee a spot if you register in person, nor does it maintain waiting lists. The Web site does encouragingly state that you are guaranteed a place in before- or after-care — if you are able to register. And though my children’s school sent around a couple of notices about the city’s camp options, registration isn’t possible through the school.

Each year as we go through this process, I wonder what happens to the other kids in my children’s class. As school was winding down, I volunteered for an activity in my daughter’s second-grade class, and I asked the children around the table what plans they had for the summer. There was a huge range of responses, from “I’m going to Disney World next week” to “I’m going to Grandma’s for the summer, where I get to watch a lot of TV.” I wonder about parents for whom a $500-a-week camp would swallow an entire pay check. Or those who would lose a half day of work — and a half day of wages — if they took the time necessary to sign their children up for one of the approximately 8,000 free or reduced-cost spaces (many of which are only one-week programs) provided by the city. And why only 8,000? What about the thousands of other D.C. children living below the poverty line?

All children deserve the chance to do something during summer. Summer learning loss is real. It’s apparent each fall as teachers try to help kids who did nothing for nine weeks catch up. This isn’t just anecdotal; research shows that by fifth grade, students who don’t participate in summer programming can lose up to two years of verbal skills and nearly that in math.

Baltimore, Boston, Providence, Chicago — they’re all figuring this out. Better planning, coordinated applications, the blending of the resources of schools, government and community organizations have all had a measurable impact on learning. Such programs are spreading as cities around the country recognize that improving access to summer programming can have a profound impact academically, socially, emotionally and physically.

With a sizable budget surplus on its hands, the District would be well-served to invest in its summer programs.

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