When I started out as an education writer, I felt bewildered by how little seemed to be generally known about what works in the classroom. My interest had been sparked, in part, because of lingering pain from the educational malpractice I had experienced and witnessed as a child, so I was on the lookout for signs of positive change. Along with other writers in the professional organization I joined, I found myself chasing after each new potential solution to the problem of why schools meet only some students’ learning needs. It’s class size, no, it’s the quality of the teacher, no, it’s whether the principal is an instructional leader and on and on. I studied the research, asked questions, and invited myself into classrooms where I could observe transformative teaching. And after a while, I began to see things differently. The problem is not how little we know. We actually know a great deal about how people learn and what students need from their schooling. The problem is that we don’t have the social will to provide all children with what we know they need.

Recognizing this meant giving up my naïve reaction of “Why don’t they just do x” and becoming more conscious of the ways school systems are designed to maintain the status quo. At the same time, I continued to see examples of teachers who believed working for social justice was part of the job, teachers who challenged themselves to teach every child. Sometimes they were supported by administrators. More often they seemed to be isolated within their schools.

This past summer, I met a new group of educators. For the Summer Look Book, published by A+ Schools, I interviewed directors of summer programs for children from low-income families in this region. The programs were designed to address the physical, mental, emotional, and social effects of the pandemic, as well as pre-existing trauma. They also aimed to offer the kinds of fun and educational activities that more privileged children typically engage in during the summer.

While that may sound like an overwhelming task, the will to make it happen was strong. I saw it in Keino Fitzpatrick of Small Seeds Development, Inc., who had to both reduce the number of boys who could enroll in the Mother to Son Success Camp and rent an additional van to comply with social distancing regulations. Still, he found the funds to provide the boys with the programming they requested. I saw it in Darlene McGregor of the Rankin Christian Center, who couldn’t find enough workers to staff the camp more than one day a week, so she added family dinners as a way to deepen connections. And I saw it in Erin Perry of the Legacy Arts Project. Along with the cultural programming the Project promotes, she wanted to get her campers into a swimming pool, and finally managed it before yet another thunderstorm rolled in.

I was awed by every person we interviewed. Some participated from their cars. Some were visibly tired. All of them were pressing on. Their love for children was palpable. And I began to think, what if we could combine their will to meet children’s needs in the community with the will of educators within the system to meet children’s needs at school? And—key question—what if school districts welcomed the expertise, care, and innovations of out-of-school time providers, and we could think about meeting the full range of needs in a seamless way, 12 months a year? What could we do for the city’s children?

In February, my daughter logged onto the website for a summer day camp at the exact time registration went live. She knew her son would love the camp—she had attended it as a child—and she also knew it would fill up fast. She was able to sign him up. But how many parents or guardians don’t have the luxury to think about camp on a cold winter day, the leisure to be in front of a laptop at the right time, or knowledge of the camp in the first place? Let alone the money to pay the fee.

Along with the stories I wrote, the Look Book contains a reckoning for the region in the form of data, which in turn fuels a call to action. One data point in particular hit home for me. Thirty-five thousand children in Allegheny County were not enrolled in a summer program last year, but would have been if one was available to them. This summer, my grandson will attend more than one local day camp that correlates with his interests. Currently, he attends kindergarten at a Pittsburgh public school that promotes the joy in learning. What he has, every child deserves, all year.

If you’re a parent or guardian looking for a summer program for your child, call the Family Hotline at 412-256-8536 now or go to the Allegheny Childcare Finder for child care, afterschool, and summer camps. If you’re a summer camp provider or a community organization looking to start one, get in touch to take advantage of the power of the network A+ Schools convenes, the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative (PLC). Last year, the PLC helped to organize learning hubs, hosted a job fair to link providers with summer program staff, raised resources, and provided other forms of support. Planning is currently underway. If you’re a parent, teacher, student, or city resident who cares about how we can better meet the needs of the city’s children, you can start by checking out the Look Book. Then add your voice to the conversation, and your will. Call A+ Schools at 412-697-1298, ext. 100, or email here.

By Faith Schantz
Editor, Report to the Community