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NC school districts' summer programs mix academic urgency with hands-on fun

Ann Doss Helms
Teacher Carolyn Hoobler (center) helps Kennedy Boddie (left) and Kamar Weekes (right) scoop filling into ravioli at Union County's culinary camp.

A week and a half after the last day of classes, a group of teens reported to Union County’s Parkwood High at 8:45 a.m. They started their day with a frittata and cappuccino, then moved on to the next step in summer culinary camp.

"The students have made focaccia bread and they’re letting that rise. And now they’re working on homemade pasta, ravioli," explained Carolyn Hoobler, one of two teachers in the new offering for high school students from across Union County.

Ann Doss Helms
A student works on sauces for homemade pasta at Union County's summer culinary camp at Parkwood High School.

Last summer brought a desperate scramble to help students catch up on academics, even as schools were finding their way out of remote and hybrid learning. This year North Carolina is pumping tens of millions of dollars into summer programs that add new twists — and potentially make summer school feel less like school.

At Parkwood, in southwest Union County, the four-day culinary camp taught students cooking skills that could lead to a job. They measured ingredients, learned to decipher complex recipes and developed organizational skills.

But Kennedy Boddie, a 16-year-old Porter Ridge High student, said this summer program didn’t feel like work.

"It’s like wow! I made that," she said. "And you would never expect it and it’s kind of tear-jerking. It’s like, I can cook and not burn something!"

Kamar Weekes, a student at Piedmont High, says when he took a cooking class during the school year he mostly hung back and watched. Now, inspired by people like Kennedy, he minced garlic and mixed ricotta and eggs to make filling for the pasta.

"It’s like watching TV but you’re actually there in person," he said. "I really like this camp."

Career accelerator camps

North Carolina is investing $26 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to provide career accelerator camps for middle and high school students. At Parkwood High that means students cook and eat steak kabobs, Italian food and a Thanksgiving-style feast, all at no charge to their families.

Elizabeth Higginbotham, who coordinates Parkwood’s career accelerator camps, said the chance to dive into hands-on activities is attractive to teachers and students.

"There is no testing. There are no grades. So it really allows the kids to be creative and learn that way, without the added pressure of performing," she said.

Last year the state required all districts to offer 150 hours of summer school, a mandate officials later concluded was just too much. Students were not required to attend, and in some districts attendance was sparse. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, district leaders said it was hard to deliver on the fun elements that would attract students while meeting all the academic demands.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said this year brought a chance to learn from that experience.

"This year I would say that the summer learning is a little more targeted," she said.

Academic urgency remains

Catherine Truitt.jpg
North Carolina Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Traditional academic summer school is still part of the formula. Reading camps are there for third-graders who need better scores to advance to fourth grade. Truitt said math boot camps are big this year, based on the steep drop in math scores during the pandemic.

And while the career-based camps for middle and high school students can feel like a break, Truitt said they’re part of a serious push to promote trade credentials and career planning.

"We really need to encourage kids to think about high school graduation not as an end but as a beginning, and not just for kids who are going to go on to a four-year college," she said. "All kids need to see themselves being on a career journey. Because that’s really the purpose of school."

This summer the state is also pumping $40 million into summer bridge academies.

"Bridge academies came out of the need to bridge time and space for rising kindergarteners, sixth-graders, ninth-graders and 12th-graders," she said.

Exploring Mars in Troutman

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Ann Doss Helms
Students attending Iredell-Statesville Schools' Rockets, Rovers and Robots summer bridge camp design a "roller coaster" using paper towel tubes.

In other words, students who are about to start in a new setting, like the soon-to-be middle- and high-schoolers reporting to the Rockets, Rovers and Robots camp hosted by Iredell-Statesville Schools.

The camp has elements that would likely be familiar from other programs focusing on math, science and engineering. Students launch model rockets and design elaborate "roller coasters" from paper towel tubes, trying to land a marble in a plastic cup.

But ISS has put its own twist on this summer bridge camp. Last year the district got a grant from the Aldrin Family Foundation. Camp Director Debra Lester says when foundation officials got off the plane from Florida, they were fascinated by North Carolina’s red clay.

"We hate North Carolina soil. It’s the worst," she said, laughing. "And they said it is exactly what it looks and feels like on Mars."

The foundation crew suggested building a Mars replica.

ISS Mars.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Students at the ISS Rockets, Rovers and Robots camp design vehicles to navigate a simulated landscape of Mars.

The camp is hosted at the district’s Career Academy and Technical School in Troutman — a huge facility that one visiting teacher describes as a trade university for high school students. Lester said masonry teachers and students swooped into a large indoor space, built a cinder-block frame and filled it with local dirt.

"It has craters and it has high points and it’s a little rocky. And it looks like what the yard looks like when you’re just beginning to build a house, when you’ve cleared it off and there’s nothing there but dirt and some small rocks and it’s compacted tightly," Lester said. "That’s exactly what we have. Mars."

A huge map of Mars hangs on the wall above the dirt pit. Students get Lego EV3 robotics kits to build rovers that can be programmed from an iPad. Their mission last week was to carry a water bottle to a small American flag, navigating through or around craters.

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Ann Doss Helms
Rising ninth-graders Hans Vink (left) and Dylan Forsgren worked together to design a vehicle that can navigate the Mars pit at the ISS Career Academy and Technical School.

Dylan Forsgren, who starts ninth grade at South Iredell High in August, worked with Hans Vink, a rising Lake Norman High freshman he just met at camp. Their efforts were looking good.

"It’s gone through a lot of changes. Originally it was just wheels, and now it’s just like a giant tank pretty much," Dylan explained.

He said he’s glad to come to school for this, even if it meant there wasn't much break after school let out.

"I really enjoy building rockets, building robots, programming, all that stuff," he said. "It’s a blast, I’ll be honest."

Chaz Bowler, an eighth-grade math teacher, says the same things that attracted the kids inspired him to sign on.

"It’s allowing us to develop friendships and learn science together and just explore," he said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.