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Local Orgs Connect Charlotte Families with Affordable Summer Programs

When school goes out of session, thousands of local parents are left without childcare. (Adobe Stock)

Nine months out of the year, parents can be pretty certain as to where their children are during the day: in school, one would hope. But what happens during the summer when schools are closed and those after-school programs working parents rely on are no longer in session? Do you hire an expensive child care professional or enroll them in a summer-long sleepaway camp?

Options like these are viable for affluent and high-income families, but not for working-class and low-income parents looking for a way to engage their children in safe and enriching activities.

These experiences are important, especially for young children, according to Dr. Ross Danis, president of MeckEd, a local education fund dedicated to ensuring students have the tools and knowledge to be successful in life after public school. MeckED facilitates Charlotte NEXT, a program focused primarily on middle school-aged children for enrichment and experience programs, for reasons far beyond passing standardized tests and students reaching benchmarks.

“[Charlotte NEXT’s] interest in middle school has more to do with social justice … well-resourced kids have access to coding and forensics, dance, drama theater — all of the things that build social capital and cultivate creativity and critical thinking — and their lives get bigger and brighter,” Danis explained. “Then you have a whole other set of kids who don’t have the resources, who now have absolutely nothing.”

Charlotte NEXT is a resource for parents, communities, social workers and educators to use to connect to after-school and summer programming for kids by managing an interactive map called The Locator, which launched June 2017 and lists 429 programs throughout the county that host kindergarten to 12th grade students.

Charlotte NEXT
The MeckEd Charlotte NEXT team (Photo by Alex Cason)

According to Google Analytics data pulled by Charlotte NEXT, the top two age filters applied to the interactive map are grades 9 through 12 and grades 6 through 8.

MeckEd has a separate program called Career Pathways that matches high school students at Vance, Independence, Garinger and Harding University high schools with relevant job experience and internships throughout the city, but organizers wanted to start further down the line to prevent problems that high school-aged students face when they don’t gain the skills, enrichment and knowledge needed earlier in life. That’s where Charlotte NEXT comes in.

“We have these young kids in high school and many of them are in foster care or aging out of foster care, or pregnant, or parenting. They’re under the poverty line and they’re skills-deficient,” Danis said. “That population is served through Career Pathways and we started to think, ‘Well, we need to upstream a little bit, so let’s go to middle school and see if we can’t expand their horizons before they get to high school.’”

While The Locator indicates that there’s a pool of summer programming to pull from for parents to enroll children, there’s a lack of awareness in the community about these programs. Most parents have their children enrolled in after-school programs and activities, but are at a loss when the summer rolls around.

Charlotte NEXT coordinator Tiyana Brown knows there’s a bridge to gap between the community and the resources available to them.

“Parks [and Recreation], they have summer programs. Freedom schools, they have summer programs,” Brown explained. “There’s definitely a bigger space when it comes to the actual after-school portion than there is in the summer program. I think there could be a better way to bridge that gap.”

For organizations to list their programs on The Locator, they simply fill out an online form. There aren’t many requirements to be listed; just an online presence and a mission to serve students.

“As long as you serve students and you have some type of online presence, so like a website, or Facebook page,” Brown said. “Just so we can screen you just to make sure that you’re actually a program, and a program that parents will want to send their children to.”

The second-most visited program out of 429 is the YWCA Central Carolinas, directed by former teacher and education administrator, Dr. Sheila Ijames.

The YWCA offers a year-round after-school program that transitions into a summer program in which after-school students are guaranteed enrollment. The program is completely funded by outside donors and is a no-cost, no-income-requirement-based literacy program that serves students from kindergarten to grade 5.

Children and education, young woman at work as educator reading book to boys and girls in park
YWCA hosts a free literacy program every summer. (Adobe Stock)

“We target literacy skills for that because reading is so important. If a child can read by third grade, they’re going to do well academically. If they can’t, then all those negative things that we hear in society — like pipeline to prison or early dropout rates —those things will occur if we don’t have them on grade level by third grade,” Ijames illustrated. “What we try to do is disrupt all that by offering literacy.”

In the literacy program, students spend a three-station rotation working on vocabulary, phonics and read-aloud activities. In the summer, students have the opportunity to pursue physical activities like golfing and swimming while also being exposed to conflict resolution and intra- and inter-personal skills and lessons.

Although Ijames has only been with YWCA for a year, she’s already seen improvements from the students they serve through the after-school and summer programs, but it will be another year or so until the data shows the bigger picture about improvement.

“We’re able to see attendance is better, behavior is better, these were children that were being suspended even in kindergarten, and a lot of that has been decreased,” she said. “What we’re doing now is gathering numbers to see how much of what we do has made an impact on the children that we serve.”

Children and recreation, group of happy multiethnic school kids playing tug-of-war with rope in city park. Summer camp fun
Many parents struggle with transporting their children to summer programs (Adobe Stock)

One of the biggest obstacles between parents and enrolling their children in these programs is transportation. Of all the people who searched for programs in Charlotte NEXT’s Locator, 63% wanted to know if transportation would be provided.

“It goes back to that access piece, because in the summertime, nine times out of 10, you’re required to provide your own transportation, whereas the after-school program might be already in your school or might be around the corner,” Brown said. “I think it makes it harder for students to get to summer programs because you have to get dropped off and picked up and sometimes programs don’t provide that, especially during the summertime.”

Ijames doesn’t see a problem with transportation for the summer program she directs at YWCA, but the after-school programs, she sees parents struggling to transport their children to the facilities after school hours. Because YWCA’s programs aren’t in the schools or near schools in the nine facilities’ areas, it can cause a problem.

“The biggest issue is getting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to say, ‘Yes, we will drop the children off at this location.’” Ijames said. “That’s the biggest issue because the children come directly from their elementary school to our learning center and oftentimes if they’re not in a particular zone or the drop off is too far away from the center, [CMS] won’t drop them off even though we’re partners.”

To mitigate this issue, YWCA utilizes family support coordinator Wendy Hernandez to help parents organize carpools and find other solutions to transportation struggles.

MeckEd hopes to conscript community organizations with vans or buses to help transport children as needed or collect a fleet of their own transportation. For the Career Pathways program currently, they employ a small group of drivers to drop students off at internship and job locations when bussing is not a viable option.

Another obstacle that Ijames, Brown and Danis see is awareness. Parents not knowing that resources for summer programming are available or schools not connecting after-school students with summer enrichment curricula create a disconnect between the students and the organizations.

“It’s just getting the word out,” Ijames stated. “For us in particular, we target low-income families and unless we can advertise on the radio stations that they listen to or the social media that they use, they don’t get the word.”

The root of the problem in finding affordable and accessible child care in the summer may be in the fact that families — particularly public service employees like teachers, firemen, bus drivers and city officials — have to worry about it at all.

“It’s a shame and a disgrace, especially in large urban city like Charlotte where you have an NFL team, an NBA team, a hockey team, and a minor league baseball team,” Ijames stated. “Child care should be free as far as I’m concerned … there should be little to no charge for that, because you’re doing a service for the city that you live in.”

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