AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you ask any adult what their summers were like as a kid, many might say they were filled with lots of outside time, summer day camps, family vacation, sleep away camps or even hanging out with friends at the mall or movies. But when you ask thousands of kids today what the summer of 2020 was like, the answer may all be the same: spending time indoors, at home, sheltering in place. Some may have felt bored. But many of their parents faced anxiety about summer plans for their children.

“Many essential workers were at a loss, asking, ‘What do I do with my children?'” said Mila Jackson the project director for Freedom Schools.

The pandemic posed an interesting challenge for summer camp organizers at The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools summer program in Austin, which focuses on literacy, STEM, and arts enrichment. They were accustomed to delivering in-person camps on three elementary school campuses located in Austin’s most needy areas: Oak Springs, Pecan Springs and Sims elementary schools.

“We had to very quickly figure out how to equip ourselves and our families to have virtual programming,“ Jackson said. “We had to get them devices, we had to get them hot spots and we had to figure out how to deliver a model that is very much done in person into a virtual setting.”

Program history — and changes

Freedom Schools is a program sponsored by The Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. Its mission is “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start, and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.”

In this Aug. 23, 1964 file photo, Bruce Solomon, of the Brooklyn borough of New York, teaches a class for young black students about arts, African American history and rights at a "Freedom School" in Jackson, Miss. Solomon was one of hundreds of volunteers in the “Mississippi Summer Project.” The classes throughout the state were set up by the volunteer workers in churches, homes and other buildings to encourage African Americans to register to vote during the long hot summer. (AP Photo/BH, File)
In this Aug. 23, 1964 file photo, Bruce Solomon teaches a class for young Black students about arts, African American history and rights at a “Freedom School” in Jackson, Miss. Solomon was one of hundreds of volunteers in the “Mississippi Summer Project.” (AP Photo/BH, File)

Freedom Schools was born from the 1964 Freedom Summer, or the Mississippi Summer Project, where college students visited various cities to help increase the number of Black registered voters in the South. While there, college students taught and read books to local school children.

The program now provides after-school and summer enrichment programs in 180 cities nationwide, specifically focusing on poor children, children of color, and those with disabilities. Unfortunately, the pandemic led to a lack of funding and personnel for many of those programs, forcing them to shut down until 2021.

“We were very fortunate,” Jackson said. “We were blessed to receive a grant from Impact Austin prior to COVID-19, so we knew that we had a good chunk of change.”

The $75,000 grant helped the program stay alive through the summer months but organizers had to quickly figure how to spend that money to make sure their campers were able to stay engaged and active. In addition to a large technology purchase and dozens of books so that students could improve their overall literacy, grant funding helped to hire tech-savvy help desk staff to address technical issues and college-age Servant Leader Interns.

An adult reads to a group of children at Freedom Schools Austin before the pandemic (Courtesy Freedom Schools Austin)
An adult reads to a group of children at Freedom Schools Austin before the pandemic (Courtesy Freedom Schools Austin)

The program also reached out to community volunteers who read books in the Zoom rooms and camp organizers started using curated curriculum materials provided by the national office. After they solved how to deliver the same summer camp in a virtual setting, the next challenge was to persuade their campers to actually log in.

Jackson says in a normal summer, 50-60 campers, also known as Scholars, would participate for eight hours a day. But in the summer of 2020, only 40 Scholars joined the virtual summer program.

“Really, the biggest impact is having the scholars experience fun, joyful and engaging curriculum,” Jackson said. “We had a really hard time getting our 40 children because we had to convince them that it was not going to be like learning was in the spring, and I’m a school teacher, so I know how difficult it was for school teachers to pivot to this online platform if you’re not used to doing that. It was a struggle.”

Stopping the ‘summer slide’

Another yearly struggle is continued learning. In a normal summer, many summer camp organizers and educators alike often fear that students will experience what’s referred to as the “summer slide.” This summer was even more concerning.

Suki Steinhauser, the CEO of another organization called Communities in Schools that works to support students and keep them in school, says it’s sometimes also referred to as the “summer cliff,” and it affects some students more than others.

“Students from low-income houses where they don’t have as many resources and advantages, they are at greater risk of losing their learning and their knowledge over the summer,” Steinhauser said. “And, this year there are some pretty dire predictions of loss in math and reading for the families that we serve.”

The summer slide phenomenon was first looked at in a 1996 research study published in the Review of Education Research Journal. It showed that children in third through fifth grade lost, on average, 20% of their school year gains in reading and about 27% of gains in math.

Kevin Cokley, professor of educational psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin says it may be difficult and close to impossible for those students to catch up.

“While I try to be optimistic,” Cokley said, “the reality is that the odds are stacked against students in disadvantaged communities from catching up. I believe there would need to be a tremendous national effort that would involve accelerated, intensive year-round schooling for between one to two years. Frankly, I do not believe that we have the will as a country to do this.”

But organizations like Freedom Schools do have a drive to help. The summer slide is one of the many reasons Jackson and Freedom Schools organizers are committed to continued learning and literacy during the summer and all-year long. She says it was incumbent upon camp teachers to remain fun and engaging so that students kept returning every day. Their plan worked.

“We had 90% of our scholars show up every day. We even had families who went out of town and they would plug in from wherever they were, so I know we made a big difference in their motivation and I think they will be a lot more willing to participate with their regular classroom,” Jackson said.

Why making a difference matters

Jackson says active participation has shown that 90-94% of their scholars maintain or improve their reading level and their love of reading over time, which is significant considering there have been steady declines in reading scores of children nationwide.

The Nation’s Report Card, released in October 2020 by the U.S Department of Education, reveals the average reading score for the nation’s 12th graders declined between 2015 and 2019. U.S. officials say the declines in 12th grade resemble those of fourth- and eighth-graders’ reading scores where the largest declines were seen among the nation’s lowest-performing students.

These declines, Cokley explains, will have long-lasting effects and will likely follow students into adulthood.

“The long-term effects will be that the educational inequities and achievement and opportunity gap that was already present among students in disadvantaged communities before the pandemic will be greatly exacerbated,” Coley said. “This will make these students less competitive for jobs they will need to support themselves and their families. The worst-case scenario is that these students will become adults who will be disproportionately more likely to need public assistance if they are unemployed, underemployed or in low wage jobs.”

Here in Austin, Jackson and the Freedom Schools program are making sure their efforts are combating those national averages by staying committed to their students’ life-long learning and success in math and reading.

The program has now made long-term plans not just for the summer months but throughout the school year, too. A portion of their grant money hired a director of parent engagement who is staying connected with families and their children to make sure camp scholars stay engaged and don’t fall behind as the pandemic continues.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.