Summer School Is Bunk: Why Camp Shouldn't Just Be for Rich Kids

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz

Every so often, a new and convincing article pops up arguing that the United States should keep kids in school all year round. These pieces cite countries around the world that outperform us academically (we rank 33rd in the world) and hold school 11 months a year. They paint a compelling picture of short breaks, or "intersessions," packed with creative courses like Harry Potter Potion-Making and How to Make Art Like Andy Warhol.

Compared to that rosy view, the typical American summer starts to look pretty grim: Yesterday in The New York Times, Jeff Smink asserted that on summer vacations, poor kids lose up to two months of what they learned during the year (almost twice the learning loss of upper and middle-class students). He explained that while wealthy kids get to attend culture-rich summer camps or fly away on educational vacations, low-income children are just hanging out all summer, forgetting what they learned.

This is incredibly depressing, especially when I think of how valuable my summer vacations were as a middle-class kid. If low-income kids are losing their educations while better-off kids are out canoeing and tie-dyeing T-shirts, maybe we should find strategies to get lower-income kids to camp instead of sticking them back into school. 

"Done right, intersessions are a time to open minds and discover passions," Brigid Schulte wrote in The Washington Post. Done wrong, though, school during "break" time could just add insult to injury. States with budget crises, like New York, California, and Illinois, are already making deep cuts in art, music, and physical education. Could we honestly expect this extended school year to look any better? Year-round school may be better for poor parents' schedules, but it's hard to see how it would be much better for the kids in practice.

Admittedly, my skepticism about year-long school is connected to my own summers, which were unusually fruitful. My parents were able to afford to send me to a summer camp where I learned not only swimming and sports, but history and politics. Historically, summer camps were not out of reach for working-class and inner-city kids. My father, who grew up poor in the Bronx, went to two of these campsone sponsored by a settlement house, the other by the Salvation Army. "We did carpentry. We learned how to swim. I sang in a chorus. We did arts and crafts," he told me. "We did all the things that are getting cut from schools right now." Adjusted for inflation, he estimated that these camps cost about $50 a week—not free like school, but not untenable, either. 

These camps came into existence in the turn of the century (my grandfather was a director of one), were mostly for poor and working class Jews and Italians, and at first were funded largely by philanthropists. But in the 1930s, the government invested in urban kids having a summer escape. "During the New Deal, there was a movement to create what was called 'recreational demonstration areas,'" says Abigail Van Slyck, author of A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth. "Most of this land is now part of state parks, but back then a portion of these 'organizational campgrounds' was rented out to social service organizations like the Salvation Army for relatively cheap."

In the 1960s, when the New Deal was over (and "when most poor kids became black and Latino," my dad adds), government money for these kinds of places petered out. And in the last few years, the American Camp Association has been hit pretty hard by budget cuts. These camps still exist—the Boys and Girls club still has both city and away summer programs, for instance—but they're few and far between, and they're not always designed in a way that's both accessible and exciting for inner-city kids.

I realize that sending kids to camp instead of summer school would constitute a costly policy change. The infrastructure is already there to support year-round school, as opposed to the huge initiative required to send students to camps or on trips. And yes, existing summer-camp programs aren't perfect. I was a counselor one summer at a subsidized sleepaway camp for inner-city kids, and I learned firsthand that the counselors can be just as outnumbered and unsupported as teachers. Still, it was clear my campers were better off in the woods than they would have been behind a desk. 

Summer school "done right" definitely sounds better than what likely would be the reality for low-income kids in year-round school. But it's still centered around academic subjects, and it's certainly not what Education Secretary Arne Duncan envisions when he talks about extending the school year. In short, it's still school, and kids deserve a genuine break. I'm not totally against breaking up summer vacation into a few different sessions per year, but why not funnel in money for more field trips, more exercise, more overnights, more fun? Intellectual stimulation is great, but kids also deserve to be relaxed, creative and active—whether in a chunk during summer vacation, or in slivers all year round.