Parents fight to save Wake school summer camps

Families are mobilizing to save popular summer camps that are being eliminated by the Wake County school system, in part, for not being educational enough.

School officials say the long-running programs offered at six schools in Cary and North Raleigh weren’t sanctioned by the district and lack a strong academic focus. School officials say they instead need to focus on state-mandated summer reading camps that target struggling students.

But parents say eliminating the camps removes a safe place for their children to spend the summer and takes away income that teachers and teacher assistants had hoped to receive.

Parents from five Cary schools – Cary, Davis Drive, Green Hope and Weatherstone elementary schools and Davis Drive Middle School – will meet Sunday to brainstorm ways to save the program. Jeffreys Grove Elementary in North Raleigh also had a summer recreational program last year.

“A decision was made thinking only about the cons of summer camp,” said Morrisville Councilman TJ Cawley, whose children have attended Weatherstone’s camp. “But when everybody takes a look at the pros and cons, the benefits outweigh the cons for a program that’s been so successful.”

Hundreds of students use the camps annually, paying a $50 registration fee and $145 a week for the all-day, nine-week program. Last year, Cary Elementary promoted how the camp would include fields trips to places such as science museums, weekly activities such as swimming and daily activities such as theme-related crafts.

Over the past two weeks, parents were told the camps won’t be offered in 2016.

Lisa Luten, a Wake County school spokeswoman, said school administrators recently learned the summer camps didn’t comply with a district requirement that the school board approve the student fees before they can be collected.

Parents have been seeking help from school board member Bill Fletcher, who represents the five Cary schools that have camps.

“It does concern me that any popular program must be shuttered,” Fletcher said in an email sent Thursday to parents. “Unfortunately, none of these summer recreational programs was sanctioned by the District. For various reasons they must be discontinued in their current form.”

Fletcher told the parents the camps didn’t have the required property and liability insurance. Luten added that the camps are not mandated programs.

“These are recreational programs,” Luten said. “Should we put resources into them to make sure they comply with liability laws and insurance requirements?”

Fletcher noted that Wake partners with groups such as the YMCA, allowing them to rent school facilities to operate summer programs. He said that shows “a spirit of non-competition by our schools with those organizations.”

Parents say that children who have anxiety issues or special needs will do better at a program run by teachers who know the students.

“If you had a special-needs child, would you want a teenager looking after your child?” said Nancy Haywood, a parent at Cary Elementary.

One of the points of contention is the level of academics offered at the summer camps.

“The focus on these programs is not academic,” Luten said. “It’s not part of our strategic plan.”

But Haywood said her children have had plenty of educational experiences at Cary Elementary’s camp, such as designing and tending an organic garden. Other experiences last year included studying chemical reactions while making ice cream, group and individual reading and weekly art lessons.

“We had academics going on in the summer camp,” said Haywood, who has been organizing the parents, including running a Facebook group. “It wasn’t a bunch of kids running around in the gym all day.”

School officials say Wake needs to focus on state-mandated Read To Achieve summer reading camps, which are being expanded this summer to include students in first, second and third grades.

Fletcher said Wake fears it might not have enough teachers to support the reading camps. Luten said Wake is letting teachers know about the opportunities to work at the reading camps.

But Haywood said she’s heard from several school employees who worry they won’t be able to replace the income they would have made at the recreational camps. Also, teacher assistants aren’t hired to work at the reading camps.

“These teachers who were relying on this income for the summer now have to find another job, possibly flipping burgers for two to three months,” Haywood said. “How does this show we care for our teachers? That’s just disgraceful.”

With June not too far away, Fletcher told parents he’s asked staff to provide information on how similar summer camp programs might be provided in the future by a “responsible third party.”

Parents are hoping to persuade Wake to at least offer the camps for one more summer.

“The school board can be heroes here,” said Cawley, the Weatherstone parent.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui