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United Way’s Summer Smarts: Learning, Enrichment, Fun Activities And Lunch During School Vacation

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Bill Sarno/CTLatinoNews

The United Way of Central and Northeast Connecticut has developed a program, Summer Smarts, which is designed to help draw public attention and support nonprofit initiatives to close the learning and nutrition gaps that many lower-income students experience during the summer.

Educational advocates project that the at-risk population, which often includes Latino and other minority students, can lose two months of reading achievement over the summer and it may take educators four to six weeks when school resumes to get these children back on track.

Moreover, since many of the lower-income children eat free or reduced price lunches during the school year, another issue is how to provide these children with nutritious meals during this vacation period.

In Hartford, nearly all children eat a free or reduced meal at school, said Paula Gilberto, president and chief executive officer for the regional United Way. “What happens during the summer?” she asks.

Concern about this so-called summer slide has been the catalyst in various nonprofit agencies to partner with local school districts to create programs that provide learning, enrichment and fun activities, as well as free lunches, to lower-income students. These are the programs that the United Way wants to help.

The school districts know which children would benefit from summer school and reach out to their families, explained Gilberto.   “Our role is to fund quality, nonprofit partners,” she said.

The Hartford-based United Way is hoping to raise $250,000 through Summer Smarts, which will be awarded to selected nonprofit agencies in June.

“With the $250,000 we can reach 2,000 children,” Gilberto said. The majority of these children come from Hartford, New Britain, Enfield, East Hartford and Windham, she added.

The regional United Way has been working on several fronts to publicize and fund Summer Smarts. Information is available on its website at unitedwayinc.org/summersmarts.

United Way also is reaching out for donations to various businesses with an interest in children and to professional offices, such as pediatricians. The organization also is asking individuals to set up crowd-funding pages where friends and family members can contribute to Summer Smarts, Gilbert said.

Parents can find out which summer programs are available in their community through the state’s 2-1-1 information hotline. This service, managed by the United Way of Connecticut, includes bilingual staff and translation services, Gilbert said.

Summer Smarts fits into United Way’s broader priority of enabling students to graduate high school on time. Three important components in this endeavor are early childhood readiness to prepare for entry in kindergarten, a child’s ability to read at grade-level by fourth grade and preparing students for academic success when they enter the ninth grade.

In assessing the impact of the summer programs, Gilberto said, it was found that the children actually improved academic performance.

While Summer Smart does not specifically target Latinos, the United Way of Central and Northeast Connecticut’s 40-town service area includes Hartford, New Britain and Windham/Willimantic, cities with significant populations of younger, less affluent Latinos who provide the largest portion of the public school enrollment.

Looking forward to the impending school vacation period, United Way currently has volunteers evaluating funding applications from various nonprofit organizations with consideration to a program’s other sources of funding, its plan for this summer and whether this effort is well-run and fiscally sound.

The regional United Way’s board of directors will review the volunteers’ recommendations in June to determine which programs are awarded funds.

Supporting summer programs is not a new endeavor for the United Way. The organization, has been partnering with “great nonprofits” in New Britain and Hartford for several years, Gilberto said. This is the first year the program has reached out to East Hartford.

The agencies with whom the United Way work are mostly are credible organization already in good standing with local families, Gilberto said, and include Village for Families and Children and Catholic Charities. “They work with neighborhood schools and run great programs,” she said, which generally focus on the lower grades.

Typically, a day might consist of the academic experience in the morning, lunch and then enrichment and fun activities in the afternoon, often hosted by nonprofit agencies.

As an example, Gilberto cites what she saw last year in a visit to the Summer Enrichment Experience in New Britain where students who took the summer school classes in the morning, were eligible to enroll in the afternoon fun activities.

One of these activities, Gilberto recalled, was a yoga class for third graders. As the children took one of the yoga positions, the United Way executive recalled, the instructor asked them what shape they resembled, with the answer being a triangle. Not only did the children learn that shape, but it also tied into discussion of the food pyramid.

“This was an innovative way to weave what the children learned in the morning into the afternoon activity and to keep the kids energized,” Gilberto said.

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