The Boston Nature Center (BNC), an urban Mass Audubon sanctuary, offers public programs year-round. Located in the Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, two miles of trails and boardwalks traverse meadows and wetlands where wildlife abounds, including coyotes and many species of migratory birds. The sanctuary’s George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center is one of the “greenest” buildings in Boston, teaching environmentally sustainable design by example. The site also includes the Clark-Cooper Community Gardens, one of Boston’s oldest and largest community gardens, providing food and a green oasis for 260 local families.
During the summer months, BNC meets various community needs. There are three components to their summer programs: a ten-week summer camp, a daily outreach program for other Boston summer camps called Summer Discoveries, and a five-week Summer Learning Program for rising fourth graders from the Haley and Young Achievers elementary schools. In each of these programs, BNC has identified the need to make stronger connections to the families of the children they serve and achieve a strategic priority of building conservation communities in Boston neighborhoods. I came to serve at BNC through the AmeriCorps New Sector Summer Fellowship program. In 2012, I worked with two other AmeriCorps Summer Fellows, Christina Kirk and Zoe Tabachnick, at BNC’s five-week “Summer Explorers,” part of the citywide Summer Learning Program.
The Melding of Two Worlds
When we arrived that summer, BNC had already proven themselves as a successful summer camp program in this urban community. They knew how to engage young people and make learning in the beauty of their natural habitat captivating and enriching. Yet, the Summer Explorers Learning Program was a hybrid experience that brought together summer school educational learning in a camp-style environment. This meant that students must not only have fun learning in nature but must also academically produce in classroom settings with instruction provided by Boston Public School teachers.
The melding of these two worlds is difficult for many out-of-school time practitioners. How does a summer program blend the interactive, innovative camp space with the often-unyielding curriculum of public education? How do like a camp while ensuring the camp does not feel like a mandated summer school? Administrators of this program also had to consider how to incorporate research guidelines identified by the foundations that underwrote the costs of this program, which are critical for the credibility of the research. This program targeted students already struggling academically during the school year.
The BNC Summer Learning Program staff decided that in order to create a successful camp / summer school experience, they must bring the families of these students to the table as stakeholders in achieving positive outcomes. In the first year of the Summer Learning Program, the BNC staff quickly learned that family engagement was not only vital for student behavior management but also critical to the educational empowerment of the children served by this program. Yet, during that inaugural year, the Summer Learning Program did not have the staff capacity to invest time in implementing a summer learning curriculum while also connecting with the numerous families they served. Decades of research by the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) supported their experiential summer findings and pointed to the benefits of family involvement in children’s learning. According to the HFRP, family involvement in children’s education in school and at home has been shown to boost school grades and test scores, improve school attendance, foster social skills, and increase graduation rates and postsecondary education attainment.
Community Outreach Strategy
The AmeriCorps members developed a community outreach strategy for the five-week Summer Learning Program that engaged families in the learning and activities students experienced during the day. In addition to creating a strategic plan for the Summer Learning Program, as AmeriCorps members, we participated in program planning, preparation, teaching lessons, and daily program contact with families. We acted as the primary contact with families, recruited families to develop educational extension activities for students and families to do at home, and planned family events.
Strategies to engage families began long before the first day of the Summer Learning Program with preprogram phone calls and orientation. Three weeks before the program start date, we began making calls to families who had committed to attending the program. The purpose of the call was to confirm that the student would participate in the program. We also followed up on mailed orientation invitations. Phone calls were an opportunity to fill in gaps of missing student information, such as health forms and immunizations, and to identify special needs, such as language and transportation barriers. The goal of the preprogram orientation was to connect with the hearts and minds of the families who would be served by the Summer Learning Program.
Our phone call reminders resulted in a high percentage of family turnout for our first orientation. Yet that was only half of the task. Once the families were there, it was important to connect with every parent, explain the summer program, and rally them as allies in their child’s learning experience. Like many open houses, we served food and encouraged mingling. Students, their families, and staff were introduced, and we presented an overview of the family engagement tools that would be implemented and sought their feedback. The orientation closed with a family question and answer opportunity.
Despite obvious benefits of family engagement, the BNC community and my cohort members had challenges ahead of us. Both families and program staff faced obstacles in building relationships with each other. For families, lack of time posed a real barrier to engagement. After all, many parents seek out-of-school learning programs because they work, attend school, or have other responsibilities beyond traditional school hours.
BNC, like many out-of-school time providers, work under the constraints of limited resources. The increased demands to demonstrate outcomes to meet research guidelines presented by the funders can be challenging. Hence, engaging families may feel like an additional task in the face of other priorities, such as safety, behavior management, program planning, and budgeting. The AmeriCorps Summer Fellows recognized the importance of the task ahead and immediately identified several strengths of this community of students and staff that left us encouraged.
The first strength was that students were selected for this program, and in order to participate, parents had to commit to their child attending all five weeks of the program. This initial investment meant that parents were engaged and committed to their child’s learning from the start of the program.
The next strength we found was that the Summer Learning Program provided transportation to and from the program, which ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. While the BNC is located in an urban neighborhood with close proximity to the schools these students attend, transportation is critical for families who depend on public transportation or whose work schedules might not allow them to be available for a 3:00 p.m. dismissal. (BNC also offered an extended-day option until 6:00 p.m. for interested families.)
An additional strength was that students were recruited from two local schools, so most had friends from school that were also in the program. These school friendships provided camaraderie and support as they faced challenges during their summer out-of-school learning time.
The AmeriCorps Summer Fellows decided to focus on the assets of the children, families, and community at large. Therefore, it became evident that the staff needed to find as many avenues, mediums, and opportunities to express positive feedback to the students and their families as possible. A family communication folder was created that went home with each student daily to be reviewed and initialed by a parent or guardian. This folder contained our weekly newsletter, take-home activities (for the student and a family member to complete together), permission slips for field trips, program reminders, and a “good deed chart” for the child.
“Good deed beads” served as a behavior management tool. Students earned beads by exhibiting positive behavior throughout the day. Good behavior was defined as appropriately following expectations and performing behaviors listed on the “Summer Explorers Expectations Chart” or by acting in ways that were generally helpful, kind, and/or considerate. We designed the system to positively reinforce students’ good behavior. While every behavior management system has its weaknesses in implementation and consistency, many students emotionally benefited from the positive recognition.
Through “good news phone calls” BNC staff shared the individual academic, behavioral, and social gains of students with their families. Many families had been accustomed to receiving calls to inform them of their child’s deficits, so they were appreciative to hear the good news reported in these calls. Good news phone calls were at the discretion of each AmeriCorps Fellow and often focused on student learning and social excellence, such as kindness or leadership. A midprogram parent survey found that 69 percent of family respondents reported that the good news phone calls were important.
An Intense Lesson
This summer of service was an intense lesson in the resources it takes to effectively engage families. The success of the family strategy plan at BNC did not rely on one particular tool or tactic; rather, we implemented at least a dozen tools that were outlined in our family engagement strategic plan for BNC. However, tools can only be used effectively with the right balance of head and heart when approaching service to others. BNC’s goals were to reach families in as many ways as possible and learn what worked best for each family. Systems and logs for tracking data measured the return rate of each tool. We heavily valued the contact and feedback of our parents. Some of these examples include: greeting families at morning drop off and chatting about their children at dismissal, listening to their feedback, taking notes, and rede-veloping our strategies.
Our ideas of communication were tested and approved compared to the families’ expectations of us as providers, teachers, and mentors for their most-valued entities — their children. Students and their families were invaluable allies in our engagement work as we opened the door for a conversation about academic learning plans that we could facilitate together as a team. Our motto was to engage every student, every parent, and every family, every single day, over and over again. Obstacles such as language barriers with families became learning opportunities to create new tools and strategies. We called on our colleagues for support to brainstorm alternative methods of communication. For example, students were encouraged to serve as translators, some BNC staff members were bilingual, and all program memos sent home in the communication folder included a translated version.
Closing achievement gaps between performing and underperforming students over the summer months is a lofty goal for any summer learning program. It certainly cannot be attempted or fulfilled without a diverse group of adults working together to support students’ learning advancement. Certainly, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and in our case, it took a community of nonprofit staff, professional public school teachers, AmeriCorps members, and family members to impact academic achievement of students at BNC’s Summer Learning Program.
This collaborative approach to addressing social issues is not an easy task and requires that all stakeholders listen to each other as specialists who come to this work with different perspectives and different means of quantifying successful outcomes. This holistic approach, where students, families, and community members work toward a common educational goal, requires open and honest communication. Camp methods and traditional school approaches can thrive together. It requires a robust team of people who are willing to listen, adapt, and design innovative educational experiences with the needs of the students and families at the core of every program decision.
Tips for a Successful Summer Learning Program
Family engagement is critical.
Behavior expectations should be clear.
Have a plan to overcome potential barriers.
Jamara M. Wakefield is a Boston native and a student at the New School for Public Engagement in New York. She spent her summer of 2012 working on a New Sector AmeriCorp Family Engagement project at the Boston Nature Center’s summer camp. She has worked for several nonprofits and has a strong interest in helping organizations reach their mission through strategic planning. Jamara attended camp every summer as a child and believes it is a critical learning time for children.