“I need you to be OK with failing.”

This is the message Aquarius Cain gives to students on the first day of camp every summer. Cain is the co-owner and CEO of Achieve Success Tutoring, which hosts a variety of STEAM camps all summer long.

“I love having that conversation with them,” Cain says. “Yeah, you’re gonna fail, and it’s gonna be OK. It’s gonna help you.”

RELATED: Why Black Students Thrive in Summer Camp

Throughout the summer, students assemble LEGO creations, make slime, and build robots. They compete in individual and team challenges. And they learn.

A project from Achieve Success Tutoring’s summer camps. Photograph courtesy of Achieve Success Tutoring

The programs focus on critical thinking. Last year, the culminating project was for teams to build a mini golf course, and another project had students work together to make roller coasters out of cardstock and send a marble through it. 

“There’s that learning and discussion piece with it. We make sure they understand the background, the science behind all of this,” Cain says. “It’s like I’m sneaking in the learning while they’re having fun.”

And sneaking in that learning is especially important now. A new Learning Heroes study shows that parents are overestimating how well children are performing academically, also known as the “perception gap.” 

Parents should look at summer as “two to three months of opportunity to help kids catch up in fun ways,” says Tracie Potts, an advisory board chair for Learning Heroes. 

“As parents, we really need to realize where we are in that [perception] gap, and seek out those opportunities so our kids can be ready to move ahead when they go back,” Potts says. “And summer is a great time to do that.”

‘Everyone Thinks It’s Not Me’

Though “perception gap” might be a new concept for many, Learning Heroes has been researching it for eight years. And, while the pandemic shone a light on existing issues, Learning Heroes’ research shows the perception gap hasn’t dramatically changed since virtual learning.

“The gap is this is what most parents think looking at the report card and seeing A’s and B’s,” Potts says. “The actual assessments show that there are a lot of kids out there who may be making good grades, but aren’t necessarily reading or performing in math on grade level.”

Their new campaign, called #GoBeyondGrades, looks at the perception gap in cities around the country. Nationally, about 89% of parents think their children are at or above grade level in math, compared to 92% of parents who think the same about reading levels. It’s about 70% too high.

In Washington, D.C., for example, 84% of parents think their 8th grader is at or above grade level in math, but only 10% of D.C. students actually tested proficient or above. The gap is smaller but still sizeable for reading, with 83% of parents thinking their 8th grader is at or above grade level, but only 31% of D.C. students test at proficient or above.

“Part of the problem with the gap is everyone thinks ‘it’s not me,’” Potts says.  

But knowing if your child is academically successful goes beyond reading notes from the teacher and looking at report cards. And summer is a good time to take those steps.

‘This Is Not the Time to Take a Break’

In the aftermath of the pandemic, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on addressing the full range of our children’s needs. Not just academics, but enrichment and healthy socialization. The focus has also extended to after school and summer learning. 

“We’re stemming learning loss,” says Jodi Grant, the executive director of Afterschool Alliance. “Or, even better, creating opportunities that didn’t exist.”

And, Black parents are overwhelmingly concerned about their children losing academic ground during the summer months. 

“All parents want something holistic for their kids, but 83% of Black parents say it’s important to stem that losing academic ground, so they want their summer experience to help their child from losing academically,” Grant says. This compares to 68% of white parents.

RELATED: Black Parents Are More Involved in Their Children’s Education Than Ever

And to help meet that demand, Cain started offering virtual camps over the summer that dig deep into topics kids really struggle with, ranging from vocabulary and reading comprehension to geometry and fractions. They offer week-long sessions on different topic areas. 

Cain emphasizes the importance of providing additional support for Black kids during the summer months. However, this support need not involve tedious hours of completing worksheets in a classroom setting. Instead, Cain suggests alternative options, such as exploring the physics of roller coasters during a visit to an amusement park or embarking on a trip to a museum. These activities not only foster critical thinking and creativity but also allow for a more engaging and fulfilling learning experience.

“This is not the time to take a break,” Cain says.

RELATED: 6 Tips for Avoiding Holiday Learning Loss

‘We’re Nowhere Near Meeting Demand’

It’s both good and bad that demand for summer learning programs is high. While it’s a positive sign that parents, guardians, and students are seeking out these opportunities, the industry is facing shortages — both in programs and staffing.

According to a report from Afterschool Alliance, program providers are facing major challenges in hiring and retaining staff. The report showed that Fall 2021 was the peak of concern, with 71% of providers expressing “extremely/very concerned.” While this worry dropped to 66% in Fall 2022, it remains a major obstacle in maintaining high-quality after-school programs.

RELATED: Are We Finally Getting After-School Programs Right?

“We’re nowhere near meeting demand,” Grant says.

Even though federal COVID-19 funding allowed programs to expand, the funding has expired, and waitlists are growing. Many programs used the federal funding to pay staff, which also allowed them to serve more kids, Grant says. 

Demand for afterschool programs has remained robust since Fall 2021. However, waitlists for students and the ability to meet that demand continue to be a concern among program providers. As a result, in Fall 2022, 55% of afterschool program providers were worried about this.

If anything, demand is going up.

“We’re in danger of losing kids because the cost to run the programs are going up, and the reimbursements are not,” Grant says. “That’s where we’ve seen the biggest drop off in kids, unfortunately, has been for parents that at one time could afford these programs scraping by and now can’t.”

At Achieve Success Tutoring, Cain says she starts out with one session and ends up opening a second camp to meet demand.

“[Parents] just really want [their kids] to be actively involved in something,” Cain says. “And now, they are looking for more on the academic side.”

A Focus on Holistic Wellbeing

But it’s not just academic enrichment these programs are focusing on. There’s a more intentional curriculum and a focus on a student’s holistic wellbeing, Grant says.

“When you talk to parents, you talk to students, there’s that light bulb, that excitement that having fun is so key to summer,” Grant says. “It’s something that they really lost, and you can do that and have learned at the same time.”

Though many summer programs are full or deadlines have passed, there are still options to get that holistic learning in this summer. 

Students make slime at summer camp. Photograph courtesy of Achieve Success Tutoring.

Part of the #GoBeyondGrades campaign was to highlight local programs in six cities, which people in other locations can use as a jumping off point to find programs in their areas. It spotlights national programs, like Girls Who Code and Khan Academy, as well as reminding people to check public schools or community centers. 

With parent advocacy, Potts wants to empower parents with the knowledge that they are not on the sidelines of their children’s achievements, but are really an important part of it.

“The decisions that we make about summer learning, about out-of-school learning, about tutoring, about talking to the teacher — a big part of our campaign is to open those lines of communication, and we have resources to walk parents through,” Potts says. 

“These are the kinds of questions you should be asking. This is what an end of the year conversation should look like so you can get the information you need.”

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Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...