SCHENECTADY — Last summer, Arlis Williams, 46, played a lot of Monopoly with her now-7-year-old daughter, Zendeya Smith. Like many parents, Williams, a mother of three, was doing what she could to keep her daughter occupied while balancing her job responsibilities at an insurance company.
That meant playing board games during Williams’ lunch hour, but it also meant a lot of boredom for Smith.
“This year is totally different,” Williams said. “She’s outside. She has friends. She’s socializing. She’s growing into this beautiful young lady because she has other kids that she gets to play with all day instead of just watching Mommy or sitting at home watching TV.”
This year is different because Smith is one of 1,492 students to enroll in the Schenectady City School District’s summer enrichment program. That enrollment, up from 1,309 last summer, is the highest total since the program launched in 2017. The inaugural year served roughly 600 students — all elementary school pupils. In the program, students this summer received breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner, with 360 staff members working across 11 sites, according to the district.
Following two-plus tumultuous years of learning environments being disrupted by the pandemic, students, teachers and parents say they are glad to have back a more “normal” in-person learning experience. The summer program’s strong enrollment numbers seem to indicate that demand.
“Coming back from COVID, where a lot of students were locked indoors, they have an opportunity to be outdoors and to be around their friends and their teachers,” said Simone Miranda, assistant director of innovation, equity and engagement with the district. “They were ready to come back and be involved in wanting to learn, which is not always the case during the year. The activities that we offer them are so hands-on and engaging that they wanted to be here.”
Williams, whose two older children are no longer school-age, said this was the first year she enrolled a child in the summer enrichment program. She said Smith’s father lives in Newburgh, and expensive private camps weren’t an option.
“I honestly do not know where she would be,” Williams said of her daughter’s summer plans if not for the program, which was held in person last year after being remote in 2020. “She’d probably be with me again.”
The four-week program, which ended Friday, featured activities ranging from swimming lessons at the Boys & Girls Club, to math and science games and experiments, to field trips. For instance, high school students learned about urban farming and African drumming. Elementary school students learned about tennis and literature. District field trips included outings to the New York State Museum, the VIA Aquarium and Adirondack Animal Land.
“They’re always so excited to be here,” said Carrie Laurenzo, a teacher at William C. Keane Elementary School. “We have so many activities and programs for them to do that they are busy all day long, and they are just so excited.”
Xaniyah Williams, 6, said she liked swimming best.
“Because I just dunked my head, and now I know how to swim now,” she said.
Dressed in a purple cape with a matching purple mask around her eyes, Williams was celebrating the end of this year’s summer enrichment program at Keane with her fellow heroically clad students. The school chose a “superhero” learning theme this summer, with social-emotional learning taking a central focus in response to the pandemic, said Nicole Mastrianni, site leader for the summer program at Keane.
“That’s the foundation to building a really good education. You have to be able to communicate with each other and work with one another in order to learn,” Mastrianni said. “So that was a really important piece to us this year.”
During Thursday’s celebration, student work hung on the fence along the perimeter of the playground. In one project, students were asked to name what power they would have if they were a superhero. Answers ranged from “flying” to “ice powers” to “tell uport.” The goal was to get students thinking about their inner abilities.
“It’s really positive to have them think about what they have within them that they can share with the world,” said teacher Sarah Brady. “When some kids might not feel that they have much to share, the superhero theme has really had them embrace that in themselves. All superheroes are unique and different.”
Ameera Crellin, a social worker who has been in the district for a decade and a half, said she thinks of the students, who have gone through so much during the pandemic, as heroes.
“I think that describes these kids beautifully,” Crellin said. “They have been so resilient and so strong throughout. They are true superheroes.”
Parents, too, have faced many an obstacle during the pandemic.
“Parents don’t get the summer off, so having that opportunity to have a program where they know their kids are safe, they’re learning, they’re engaged, they have teachers that are there to support their needs — it’s really very important for parents,” Crellin said.
Laura Delregno, a stay-at-home mother with four kids in the district and one child not yet in school, said she appreciated the summer program. She enrolled two children, ages 8 and 10.
“They’ve been going over a lot of math and reading, which is good, because they’re not just playing,” Delregno said. “They come here to also learn, and then they play, so it’s a good thing.”
Smith, who played a lot of Monopoly with her mom last summer, said the program is similar to school — only more fun.
“I get to see some friends, I get to make new friends,” said Smith, who will start third grade at Keane this fall. “It’s kind of like school, except we don’t get homework.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.