At four schools throughout Schenectady on Friday, approximately 1,000 elementary students finished their second week of summer classes. They played math and reading games on laptops, ate three meals, worked with teachers and specialists and played outside. Some of them went swimming.
At Paige Elementary, one first-grade class gathered around a mock fireplace crafted from construction paper and shared their dream jobs and favorite candies.
“I want to be a police officer because he has cool gadgets,” said one student, passing a fake marshmallow stick to Andrew LeGere, 21, a longtime counselor in the city’s summer camp program who is spending this summer in a classroom.
It isn't what Legere thought he'd be doing this summer.
As the Schenectady City School District has expanded its summer enrichment program for elementary students – from a pilot last summer of about 600 students to more than 1,000 this summer – it retreated on a commitment to provide transportation and teachers for the summer camp. The district instead absorbed the camp into its new summer program, reassigning more than 40 high school and college camp counselors, who enlisted expecting another year of SCORE camp at Central Park. LeGere was among those to be assigned to classrooms at one of the four summer program sites.
“I actually don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” admitted LeGere, a student at Schenectady County Community College, when it was his turn to share.
Meanwhile, at Central Park – where in previous summers as many as 200 youngsters spent their days swimming, kayaking and studying the park’s ecology as part of the SCORE camp – just a few children and families enjoyed the park’s playgrounds and pool. It is the first time in nearly a decade that the summer camp, jointly organized by Schenectady City schools and the Schenectady County Youth Bureau, has not filled those facilities with youngsters.
“I was really disappointed to hear it was over,” said Erin Gozalkowski, a Schenectady High School graduate who worked as a SCORE camp counselor for three previous summers and is studying mathematics at UAlbany. “We’ve missed out on a lot of the things that made SCORE camp special.”
Gozalkowski, who is working as a counselor at Paige Elementary this summer, recalled the outdoor activities she misses from the camp, where youngsters swam every day and spent time exploring the woods and pond in Central Park.
Ed Kosiur, director of the county youth bureau, and Schenectady City Council president, said he met with school officials during the winter to plan for the summer program. The district had signaled to Kosiur in 2016 it planned to build its own summer program. As summer neared, Kosiur said, he was under the impression the district would use Central Park by rotating summer school sites through on a daily basis. He even reserved the Central Park picnic pavilion for most of the month of July.
“It was somewhat surprising; I thought they were going to try to rotate the schools into Central Park,” he said. “I really want to incorporate that Central Park outdoor setting into the program next year, because that’s important, especially for our urban students. Where else is a kid going to learn to kayak -- learn to play tennis.”
Patty Paser, assistant to the superintendent and one of the chief organizers of the district’s summer program, said she envisioned using Central Park in a slightly different way: Each school site's campers would spend a week at the park, and different grades' youngster would make field trips to the park during the week.
But the district has not used Central Park in either way. While students are rotated to time slots at the Central Park pool – each camper gets a least one hour a week of swim lessons – they have not used the park or its pavilion. Kosiur said he gave up the reservation for student activities. Paser said she hoped the district would use the pavilion in the final two weeks of the program, which runs for four weeks in July.
The district’s primary goal over the summer, Paser said, is to provide academic support to students who otherwise would lose ground during the summer – known as summer slide. While the summer program offers students smaller classes and more recreation and game-based activities, the goal is still to boost students’ math and literacy skills. The district chose students most in need of the extra support for the approximately 1,000 available spots; a long wait list was proof of parents' interest.
“Our mission is to prevent summer slide, and we know that is our top priority,” Paser said.
Kosiur said he was in full support of the district’s expanded summer program.
“We were only serving 200 students, where now they are serving more than five times that,” Kosiur said.
Youth program organizers across Schenectady said the district’s summer expansion was definitely positive – even as the district program's expansion changes the landscape in which other community providers plan their own programs.
Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry, which runs the only summer breakfast and lunch program in the county, said it would be nice to have a sense of what the district’s summer plans for next year. If outlined in the fall, his organization could coordinate better, he said, starting planning of its summer program, which distributes tens of thousands of meals across the city to children and teens during the summer months.
“We knew the summer enrichment program was coming; we didn’t know the scale of it,” Grigsby said. “We are very supportive of the enrichment program. It’s just a challenge how the rest of us adapt to that… In general, the sooner we have the information, the better.”
Paser said she hopes the district will be able to outline its plans for next summer sooner than it has in its first two years, when budget considerations and student interest forced changes late into the spring.
“Now that we’ve had two years, we will have a better look at the whole program… when this one ends, we plan for next year,” Paser said. “We want to work together with all of our community organizations so we can take care of all of the community. We want to be able to communicate much sooner and work with them.”
A lot of community organizations have contributed to the summer program this year: the Boys and Girls Club hosts summer program students for once-a-week swim lessons at Central Park and Quackenbush Park; miSci has put on demonstrations at schools, blasting bottle rockets into the air; Cornell Cooperative Extension has presented good nutrition and personal hygiene programs; the Schenectady County Historical Society has planned presentations; an Ellis doctor hosted hundreds of students for a picnic.
And even as the district expands, the community’s need for summer programs remains high for thousands of youngsters and teens.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without community organizations,” said Aaron Bochniak, another organizer of the summer program. “But there are still gaps. We have a wait list; there is the whole month of August…. There’s still a huge need to do more.”
In the classroom
Paige site leader Michele Ferraro, who after 15 years teaching in St. Johnsville registered to teach during last summer’s Schenectady enrichment program and enjoyed it so much she took a full-time job in the district, said the younger students enjoy a chance to work with older kids.
“These little guys really look up to the older students,” Ferraro said.
LeGere, who has lost count of how long he has been involved with SCORE camp, said he recognized the benefits students received in the more academics-focused environment, as well as the three meals they are served. But he still missed what SCORE camp offered and said he hopes the district will find ways to offer more outdoor experiences as the summer program continues to evolve.
“Where SCORE camp was more fun with a good amount of school, this is more school with a good amount of fun,” LeGere said.
The students are in school for 10 hours each day, and they do get outside. But Paser also said she hopes the district can incorporate more outdoor programming into the summer offering next year.
While he said he missed the constant stream of outside activities and the different role of the counselors at SCORE camp, LeGere has experienced a new level of teaching in his hours in the classroom this summer.
“I get to talk to them (students) about all sorts of things,” LeGere said, highlighting discussions he has had with students about stars and the enormity of the universe. “Talking with kids about stuff like that -- stuff they don’t know about and they get really excited about -- that’s awesome. When they are curious about it, that’s awesome.”