The Case Against Summer Vacation

It's an outdated legacy of the farm economy. Adults still romanticize it. But those months out of school do the most damage to the kids who can least afford it

  • Cass Bird for TIME

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    Mike Bachman is the executive director, a young man with clear eyes and obvious enthusiasm. "Everything that happens is enrichment. It all has an educational purpose, but we don't want the kids to think that they're in school," he explains. "We infuse the education into everything we do." That can mean sneaking leadership lessons into afternoon soccer games, teaching principles of fitness during outings to the local swimming pool or wrapping planning skills into preparations for a picnic at a state park. "It was the first time some of them had ever seen charcoal," Bachman says.

    Indianapolis is ahead of most cities in making better use of summer, according to Fairchild of the National Summer Learning Association. And that's mainly because a group of local philanthropies, led by the Lilly Endowment, decided in the 1990s to coordinate their efforts to provide safe places for children to go when they were out of school. In recent years, says Lilly's Willis Bright, the focus has increasingly been on "the learning element"--a critical need, given that the Indianapolis public schools graduate fewer than half of their students. "But that doesn't mean you make it just another classroom," Bright adds. "You can teach physics with a basketball."

    Together, 11 charitable organizations--ranging from United Way to small family foundations--pool about $3 million per year to support nearly 200 summer programs around Indianapolis. Not all of the programs are educational, but that's where the emphasis lies. Grants support everything from those buses to the Chicago aquarium to salaries of certified teachers to day-camp visits by professional artists and musicians to an urban garden created by retired biochemist Aster Bekele, where city kids explore plant science alongside Bekele's former colleagues from the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical labs.

    Rather than engineer a vast new initiative, the strategy is to build on the city's existing patchwork of day camps, community centers, sports camps and summer-jobs programs. The activists hope to improve quality while keeping costs low, coordinate training for staff members and encourage a philosophy of educational enrichment. Over the years, Bright has seen a volunteer tutoring effort by 100 Black Men of Indianapolis grow into an all-day summer academy for some 200 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Supported by the pool of grant money, academy students receive innovative math training through Project SEED, study music through the Young Audiences' Summer Arts for Youth and practice reading through an interactive software program called Ticket to Read. But it's not all desk work. The students know it's summer when they burst outside for tennis lessons and when they study the stars to understand how slaves navigated the Underground Railroad. Total tuition: $125 for seven weeks.

    Meanwhile, a group of Indianapolis firefighters have gone from volunteering on ball fields to enrolling more than 100 students in an eight-week summer leadership camp named for St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. Each morning, the camp "cadets" study math, science, creative writing and public speaking. Afternoons are reserved for sports and field trips. Senior cadets--high schoolers--focus on learning the skills they need for a job hunt: writing résumés, impressing an interviewer, dressing for success. "We keep up our learning so we don't fall behind," says Isaiaah Quarles, a buoyant 12-year-old with a cascade of dreadlocks. As Quarles escorted me through the camp, whip smart and charming, I could picture him persuading his friends to paint Aunt Polly's fence. I asked him how he would spend his summer if St. Florian Center didn't exist. Dismayed, he answered, "I would just be sitting at home."

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