Free summer camp tackles equity gap

Power of Partnerships speaks to 'whole child'

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

 The organizers of a summer camp held at the Oak Park Public Library's main branch a few weeks ago are hoping it becomes an effective tool in Oak Park's collective fight to close the equity and opportunity gaps that exist between students in the village. 

Power of Partnerships — a free, four-week program held at the library that wrapped up on Aug. 10 — was designed for incoming second- through eighth-graders who struggled in the past school year and had low Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores. 

The program was the result of a collaboration between the library, Dominican University, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Excellence with Equity Education (E-Team). 

Jessica Mackinnon, Dominican's communications director, said that the summer camp is an expansion of the college's Summer Reading Academy. 

Frances Kraft, one of E-Team's co-founders, said during an interview on Aug. 10 that the new, expanded program "is literally about the whole child." 

Kraft said that the E-Team, which recently won a $50,000 Big Idea prize from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation's Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy, wanted the summer camp to be an incubator for different educational approaches. 

The roughly 55 students who participated in the camp started each morning with a 30-minute yoga session before becoming immersed in poetry, architecture, dance, technology and a range of social justice issues. 

They were taught by Dominican University School of Education graduates who are reading specialists and by current teacher candidates at the school. Other teachers, from area Catholic schools, taught students technology. 

"This program targets students who are low-performing on paper, but we don't believe that that is a habitual or natural thing," said Deavondre Jones, the director of DanceSpire, a performing arts and public speaking organization, who taught students a hip-hop dance routine that they executed during final presentations on Aug. 10. 

"Every week I worked with these kids they grew, whether in terms of their writing ability or their ability to pay attention in class," said Adam Levin, a spoken word teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, who facilitated a poetry course during the summer camp. 

"This program is really centered on the kids and their learning," Levin said. "I think that's a rare thing to have happen, especially in an offsite summer camp. The kids are the central focus." 

Kelly Carson Flemming, the program's family engagement specialist, said that during the registration period for the program, camp organizers asked parents to share their children's strengths and challenges, as well as their "hopes and dreams" for their young people. 

"That gave us such great insight," Flemming said on Aug. 10. "Frances was able to that feedback and individualize it for the teachers." 

Kraft said students were in regular communication with parents during camp days, which ran from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. A website and an app allowed camp facilitators to give parents a real-time snapshot of their children's progress.

"I really felt like I'd seen her day and been involved in what she was doing here all day," said Antoinette Campbell, the parent of Jahyda Campbell, an incoming fifth-grader, as her daughter was preparing to perform on Aug. 10. 

For Antoinette, the program's effectiveness was punctuated by its affordability.  

"It was free. A free, four-week program, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.," she said. "I couldn't believe it." 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

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