Tacoma Station Partners with Housing Authority to Bring Spring Break Camp to Homeless Students
By Chloe Gould
The children beam at the mention of KBTC’s Spring Break camp, their smiles turning to muffled giggles and excited explanations – they have built water-bottle rockets, drawn treasure maps and crafted roller coasters from foam tubes.
They are all students at McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma, WA, and they have been saddled with a big set of challenges: homelessness, neighborhood crime rates that are more than double the national average, and an underfunded school.
At McCarver, 91.6 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunches (to qualify, a family of four must earn less than $29,000 a year), and there is a 115 percent mobility rate. This is the percentage of students changing schools for reasons other than grade promotion, primarily, homelessness. The national average is around 14 percent.
KBTC, the local PBS station in Tacoma, started working with the Tacoma Housing Authority three years ago to give these children and their families a chance – a safe space and a supplemental education. One of their greatest and most-popular programs thus far has been the annual Spring Break camp, where kids rotate through three daily activities: literacy, math, and computer time.
The children – who have grown in attendance from around 20 the first year to over 50 the second – participate in math activities based on The Electric Company Extended Learning Program, write and perform a play with the help of a local theater, and explore the self-directed Ready To Learn computer games on the Lab website.
The station has rooted itself in the community, hinging its programs on open ears and willingness to compromise.
“We never wanted to be perceived as coming into the community saying, ‘We know what’s good for you all,’” said Ed Ulman, the director of development at KBTC. “Collaboration was the chief goal. Our outcomes were always focused on ensuring all partners were contributing in a substantive way.”
One of station’s greatest efforts has been its partnership with the housing authority and McCarver Elementary.
Before KBTC partnered with the project, the housing authority received a large grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to provide 50 families at McCarver Elementary with five-year housing vouchers. Ulman attended one of the original meetings about the Tacoma Housing Authority project, and knew it was an outlet for Ready To Learn outreach. It started with a lot of listening, he said, and identifying the needs among the existing partnerships.
The housing authority was dealing with much larger issues, Ulman said, like ending homelessness in the school’s population and all of the hoops it takes to make that a more reachable reality. KBTC was able to offer supplemental, after-school programs like the Spring Break camp, parent training workshops, and the Ready To Learn mobile technology lab at existing tutoring programs hosted by the area’s Peace Community Center.
The Spring Break camp, however, has been a family favorite in the community. It is five days of activity – complex crafts that turn classrooms into theme parks and time with community volunteers that act as mentors for small groups of the same children throughout the week.
“Even though I’m a fifth grader, I might not know all the words in the world,” said camper Dollar Ganu in a video interview with KBTC.
She credits Martha Speaks for introducing her to that handful of undiscovered entries in the dictionary.
In its second year, KBTC transformed the camp into something more similar to the school week, with as little transition for the families as possible. The camp was extended to five full days (as opposed to the first year’s half days), with a served breakfast and lunch, and transportation to and from McCarver – housing authority caseworks did so much as to drive vans to pick-up some children for the week.
“You’re dealing with families. You’re not dealing with a kindergartener. Your program needs to make accommodations with the parents, and encourage an on-going conversation,” said Ulman.
Emilio Torrella, a McCarver parent with five children (3 at McCarver, and one enrolled in the housing authority’s McCarver project), went to drop his children off at the Spring Break camp the first day and ended up staying the whole week. He loved the structure of the camp, which rotated between The Electric Company math activities, play writing and rehearsal, little gym and dance time, and Ready To Learn Lab computer games.
“It was things the kids connected with – I got to go from station to station with kids and help them out, and watch them learn and enjoy. That just really lit me up,” Torrella said in a video interview with KBTC.
“As a parent, it’s given me the safety and assurance to know that I have somebody in my corner,” he continued.
In its all-inclusive, family-centered approach, the station also found a way to engage some of the children’s older siblings in the weeklong camp. The third, fourth and fifth-graders reported on the activities of the week for a mini newspaper that they published with the help of one of the camp’s volunteers.
The extra dose of Spring Break attention has also helped a few of the children with some behavioral issues. Ulman and Ann Dyer, the station’s community engagement specialist, said the extra, more personalized attention that comes from the group of camp volunteers creates a safe, nurturing environment for kids with behavioral issues. The challenge is maintaining the progress past the last day of camp, they said.
“Since I get in trouble all the time, I turned my behavior around so I could be a terrific kid,” said 7-year-old David McMullen as he sipped a Sierra Mist in a KBTC video interview.
“This has given me a boot up. It’s really helping me out,” said David’s dad, DJ McMullen.
Although KBTC cycled through its Ready To Learn funding in September, the station plans on maintaining all of the community programs with help from its community partners. Peace Community Center just received a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, and they might take the lead on this year’s Spring Break camp, Ulman said.
The partnerships the station has forged are what will keep it all going for the good of the students at McCarver and their families.
Chloe Gould is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism, and is working as an intern for the Ready To Learn Program at PBS.