Popular summer camps run by five Cary schools will be allowed to continue operating this year with Wake County school officials looking at potentially expanding the program around the district.
Wake County school board members recently told school administrators not to cancel the programs, saying they filled a valuable community need. But how the camps will look in the future could still change as the district tries to figure out how to better regulate the program moving forward.
Officials are considering changes that would allow its summer camps to remain open for good, a year after almost shutting them down.
The camps’ ad-hoc nature presents problems for the school system, which has to ensure activities that occur on its properties and involving its students are properly regulated.
Last year, the Wake County school system said it would discontinue the camps, which are primarily in western Wake. They’re administered by schools without direct district oversight, and school officials cited concerns related to liability and inappropriate use of school resources.
But the board reversed course after an organized outcry from parents who said their summer plans are contingent upon the camps. Then, the board decided to allow the camps to remain open through the summer of 2016 while officials reviewed the matter.
To better understand potential risks, the district conducted an audit of the summer camps last year, whose results were presented at a Jan. 17 work session.
“These programs were not widely known to many board members and administrators, so it was kind of a surprise when this came up,” Board Member Bill Fletcher said at the work session. “All the way down to who’s paying for it, who’s handling the compensation, are taxes being withheld. All kinds of things came up.”
Davis Drive Elementary began the district’s first summer camp program in 1995. In the last six years, similar programs have begun at five other schools.
The camps also are offered at Cary Elementary, Davis Drive Middle, Green Hope Elementary, Jeffreys Grove Elementary and Weatherstone Elementary.
They will continue operating this summer, but many other questions remain. Should the district take a more active role in administering the camps? How much of their programming should be academically focused? And should the district expand the camps into other schools in different areas of the county?
At the work session, board members contemplated eliminating difficult-to-insure swimming activities from the camps’ programming. They also discussed integrating the camps within the districts’ budgetary and management apparatus and whether it is appropriate to administer them alongside after-school programs.
Parents in support of the camps say they keep students engaged with their teachers and the school environment during an otherwise unproductive summer months. Some schools, such as STEM-focused Weatherstone Elementary, use a more curriculum-driven approach. Others take a less structured approach that involves field trips and occasional guest speakers.
“I have a son who has an (individualized education program),” said Nancy Haywood, a Cary Elementary parent who helped organize last year’s push to save the camps. “For him, consistency is a key. Seeing teachers all the time, it keeps school still in his mind. Teachers also like it because otherwise they have to go find a second job.”
Camp counselors are teaching assistants or other school employees hoping to continue drawing a paycheck during the summer months. Their wages are drawn from the $145 per week parents pay for their children to attend. The audit found that the programs have operated at a small surplus, on average.
The audit also discussed the possible expansion of camps into schools beyond western Wake County. Board member Jim Martin suggested pricing the camps on a sliding scale that would use fees paid by wealthier parents to subsidize the creation of similar programs in less-affluent parts of the county.
“What we know about education is that opportunity and exposure is why there’s a correlation between achievement and poverty,” Martin said. “When I look where we’re offering this, it tends to be in our non-low-poverty schools.”
Variable pricing didn’t sit as well with Superintendent Jim Merrill, who said the county likely couldn’t afford to subsidize the camps out of its own budget and that the prospect of a sliding scale was “thorny feeling.”
Expanding the camps as a district initiative could also incur extra costs. The audit said the school-run summer camps were covered under the county’s existing insurance coverage “but this could change if the summer camps became system-wide.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan