The Key for Successful City Summer Programs: Start Early

Summer in the City – that’s the name we’ve given to the robust summer camp program operated by the City of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Nestled within the vibrant hub of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, Gaithersburg is an ethnically and culturally diverse community of just over 70,000 people.

We know that over the summer, many students who do not participate in educational or enrichment activities tend to lose up to a third of what they learned during the academic year. Our summer programs provide a much-needed safe haven for educational supports, physical activity, mental stimulation, socialization, teamwork, self-confidence and personal growth. The reputable programs provide peace of mind to families looking for enriching and safe experiences for their children over the summer months while they are at work.

For the summer of 2019, we hired, trained and supervised 113 part-time seasonal staff who were responsible for 2,541 campers (33 of whom were inclusion children) for seven weeks of traditional day camps and three weeks of specialty clinics and programs. There were traditional full and half-day camps for ages three to 16, plus sports camps, dance camps, arts camps, preschool camps and more.

You may ask, “How do you plan and execute an interesting and rewarding experience for campers of all ages, backgrounds and abilities? What factors, internal and external, offer both challenges and opportunity?” I’ll describe some challenges to be aware of and ideas about resources to help address them.

Why Early Outreach is Key

  • Enrollment impacts facility and staffing needs, but parents seem to be waiting longer and longer to register. We rely on data analysis and historical trends to give it our best guess.
  • There are a lot more summer program options available for parents these days, so we have to work harder to find our niche and advertise our programs to meet our enrollment goals.

As a result, we’ve learned that we need to start recruitment for summer early. The Wallace Foundation’s Summer Learning Recruitment Guide not only outlines how to get started, but also provides tools to develop a recruitment timeline, templates for creating engaging messages, sample postcards and flyers, and even sample scripts for Robocalls. The Summer Learning Recruitment Guide describes, that talking to parents and guardians to understand their needs during the summer can be very helpful in developing a marketing and outreach campaign that will resonate with the population you aim to reach. For example, if safety is a concern for families, you might describe your program as a safe place for children to be during the long summer hours. If families are more interested in keeping their children healthy and active, your messaging should focus on the recreational experiences and meals you offer.

Finding Facilities for Programming

  • It is challenging to find space to offer programs during the entire summer. Public schools are not available after the first week of August and staff resources are scarce as part-time seasonal employees return to high school activities or to college. Relying on school facilities is also problematic due to last minute cancellations (often related to renovation).

To maximize the time that we have over the summer, we have found it important to use tools like the planning & management resources from The Wallace Foundation’s Summer Planning Toolkit. The Sustainability Planning Tools are jam packed with questions Parks & Recreation departments should consider when thinking about the planning process itself, our capacity to serve, and how to involve different city departments and organizations to enhance our programming.

Administration & Staffing

  • Commitment for the entire summer can be a challenge for young employees.
  • While we encourage our staff to have fun and interact with campers, injuries are a possibility, resulting in workers’ compensation claims. Risk management is part of our training.
  • Our camp programs fall under our Youth Services division, which must pivot from summer camp administration and reporting directly into afterschool programming. This requires staff to be nimble, highly organized, disciplined, and most importantly, motivated.

In this ever-changing landscape, ongoing evaluation is necessary. We know that recruiting and hiring staff is critical for summer programming. By using The Wallace Foundation’s Staffing & Professional Development tool, cities can tailor sample job descriptions for recruitment, use the tip sheets to develop high-quality professional development and tools for assessing summer programs. Our teams hold a camp debrief in August to determine modifications for the coming year, including updates to policies and procedures.

Despite these challenges, Summer in the City remains a rewarding experience for all. This work is hard, but it’s worth the effort. Summer programs allow you to make deep-rooted connections within your community by getting to know youth and their families.  We know that when we offer programs that make a difference in a child’s life, many stay in Gaithersburg or come back in the summers to work for us so they can pay-it-forward and positively influence other children. Invest in your city’s future, provide a safe haven and help young people make memories for a lifetime.

To learn more about how to incorporate social and emotional learning in your city programs check out The Wallace Foundation’s tools and resources.

Michele PotterAbout the Author: Michele Potter is the Director of Parks & Recreation in the City of Gaithersburg, Maryland and sits on the Board of Directors of the Maryland Municipal League