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Summer camp in the time of COVID-19

Students participating in a summer camp

The Auburn Gresham Gold Schools initiative is a collaboration between the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC) and several strategic partners including Illinois State University Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline (CTEP). GAGDC and ISU CTEP have been collaborating on the AG Gold summer camp experience for the past decade, innovatively creating an enriching, fun, and safe space for students in kindergarten to eighth grade each summer.

This year, in the midst of coronavirus (COVID-19), GAGDC took on the challenge of adapting to a hybrid camp to ensure this treasured summer experience continued. The camp platform allowed students to receive virtual supplemental education services four days out of the week and one scheduled in-person meeting with a teacher, to assist with concepts needed to be ready for the next grade. Students were able to take part in small socially distanced groups to receive high-quality math and literacy instruction. This model provided students the opportunity to receive personalized tutoring and one-on-one attention while adhering to health guidelines set in place by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as well as the state and city.

Students planting a gardenThe goal was not only to make sure students are prepared for school this fall, but also to provide a space where they can develop socially and emotionally.  The enrichment programming included gardening, yoga, dance, choir, and much more. With a focus on youth development and fine arts activities, students built self-esteem, developed interpersonal skills, and made lasting friendships and memories.

Amanda Martin, AG Gold camp instructor and current Chicago Public Schools (CPS) special education teacher, said: “The 2019-20 school year took away a lot from our kids, academically and socially. It brought a lot of uncertainty, trauma, and disconnects. AG Gold camp’s summer hybrid model is giving children on the southside of Chicago a piece of what the school and community partnership has looked like in the past. I think that it is pertinent that we provide our children with opportunities to feel connected to something of value, as many of them have felt misplaced for months.”

Sayoni Bond, another AG Gold camp instructor and CPS elementary teacher added: “With this hybrid model, we’ve experienced many successes. For example, we’ve really strengthened our relationships with the kids due to a smaller student to teacher ratio this summer. I feel like I know more about my students than in any of the previous summers I’ve taught for AG Gold Camp. Also, many of my students have increased their ability to work with technology. They’ve learned about new platforms as well-practiced working with the ones they use during the school year. This will allow them to feel more prepared for when the school year starts back, and they are required to work on assignments online.”student doing yoga

Each year, Illinois State University education students participating in the CTEP Summer Teacher Education Partnership for Urban Education (STEP-UP) intern in the AG Gold camp, co-teaching alongside CPS teachers, some of whom were ISU STEP-UP fellows themselves. This year was no different though the ISU students were limited to virtual support.

Emily Perez, ISU deaf, hard of hearing special education major, said: “I believe technology has provided endless virtual opportunities and resources for me to provide fun high-quality support in different forms. This opportunity has let me learn to adapt to this format of teaching. I have seen the successes of my students’ creativity grow with the use of technology and their resilience during this pandemic.“

Despite the challenges and troubleshooting that are inevitable when implementing a virtual program dependent on technology, Perez saw what authentic community support looks like. “GAGDC worked around the clock to provide access to computers and hot spots to my virtual class. It started to progress once students received access, and it showed me how resilient GAGDC staff is when it comes to making sure that their students receive high-quality support.”

One key focus for AG Gold camp this summer was social-emotional learning with a holistic approach that connects the mind, body, and spirit. Elizabeth Carroll, AG Gold camp instructor and CPS special education teacher at Barton Elementary, an AG Gold school, taught this enrichment class in person to alternating pods of students daily.

Carroll described the class and its purpose: “The children engage in yoga, guided meditation, and DrumFIT (a fitness program, promoting expression through music and movement). My goal is to focus on the mental and physical health of our children by providing them with the social-emotional skills needed to express their emotions and use positive coping strategies in response to their emotional states. Through our social-emotional learning enrichment and the use of positive affirmations, children are encouraged to recognize that they not only matter but are also loved and needed.”

As schools and communities look ahead to the school year ahead and its myriad of challenges to tackle, it is important to celebrate and learn from GAGDC’s AG Gold summer camp. Knowing that their neighborhood families were counting on the camp to provide a safe learning environment for students in the community, GAGDC adapted their model with health and safety in mind, and pulled off another successful summer experience that will no doubt impact the participants as they enter a school year that will be like no other.