A room at the Wardle Family YMCA, its walls lined with computer stations, is one site of a groundbreaking effort as partnerships convened by United Way of the Lowcountry address a major challenge in education: summer learning loss.
Nearly 550 children attending camps this summer at the Y in Port Royal; Penn Center; and Port Royal, Whale Branch, St. Helena, Ridgeland and Hardeeville elementary schools will have a chance to keep up on their schoolwork so they'll be ready -- or even ahead -- when school starts in the fall.
"The children have the same computer program in our summer labs that they use at school," YMCA board chairman Fred Kuhn said. "It's a seamless transition for them -- they can do their homework, then go play."
The elementary schools have computer labs where students can use the Compass Learning Odyssey system in the summer as they do during the school year to study math, English and language arts. The Jasper County program is paper-based, but the partners hope to get grants for computer labs at those schools in the future.
It all started last summer when Clarece Walker, CEO of the local United Way, brought together the YMCA, the school district and Penn Center in a pilot program to reduce summer learning loss. The effort had unprecedented success.
"The summer camp children at Penn Center went to St. Helena Elementary every day to use the computer lab," Y CEO Mike Bostwick said. "When they were tested in the fall, 100 percent of them had either stayed at their June levels or improved."
Those results sparked this year's new partnerships at the computer lab at the Y -- where the Beaufort County School District and Hargray donated the equipment and Internet access and local contractor Bernie Kole provided the installation.
"We are focusing on the borderline students and those who are behind their grade level," Bostwick said. "Our goal is to have at least 80 percent of students test at the same or improved levels in the fall."
The Beaufort program gets funds from United Way of the Lowcountry, the Wardle Foundation and donations to the YMCA scholarship fund.
United Way and the school district also provide volunteers and teachers. Jasper funding comes from a 21st Century grant.
Similar efforts are being undertaken by YMCAs across the country, mostly larger facilities in big cities, Bostwick said.
"We applied to be a test site but were not selected, but when we reported our Penn Center/St. Helena results, we became a model for other Y's nationwide."
Another goal of the summer camp program is more traditional for the Y: to provide students with at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. This includes field games, gym activities, yoga classes for Jasper students and swimming and swim lessons where a pool is available.
"With obesity rates rising among our children, we can't ignore the need for physical activity, which also contributes to better health and better school performance," Bostwick said.
Walker hailed the Y effort as a natural lead-in to the Women's Leadership Council project that starts in the fall at eight Beaufort and Jasper elementary schools.
Part of the effort toward the United Way Education goal to cut in half the school dropout rate in Beaufort and Jasper schools, WLC relies on the strategy of having 80 percent of students in grades 1, 2 and 3 reading at grade level by 2018.
"If students who are borderline or behind don't lose ground in the summer, they will be more ready to take advantage of WLC tutoring and mentoring in the fall," Walker said.
Details: United Way, 843-982-3040; YMCA, 843-522-9622
Marge Barber is a retired journalist, community volunteer and former director of communications for United Way of the Lowcountry.