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Summer school being put to the test

June 14, 2018

STERLING – To say Amy Scott and her children have benefited from the free Sterling-Rock Falls Family YMCA summer school program would be an understatement.

Five years ago, the 39-year-old single mother was without a job, a car or a sense of independence. Taking care of her children – Gypsie, 12, Serenity, 11 and Katalina, 10 – took priority when school was out for the summer, and daycare was out of reach financially.

In 2013, she enrolled the girls in the Y’s summer school program.

“I was able to go back to work,” Scott said. “I feel a lot better. I like to provide for my own.”

Scott’s story is not unique, and she and other parents who have come to depend upon the schooling, meals, transportation and daycare services the summer program provides for 200 children in Sterling and Rock Falls are in danger of losing some or all of those benefits: Funding for the free summer programs for K through eighth-graders has decreased by half over the past 5 years.

The Sterling school district eliminated summer school in 2010. The Y started its own program 2 years later, in 2012, serving 50 students that first year.

It offers half-day classes, 8:30 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday, for 4 weeks at Washington and Lincoln elementaries and the Whiteside Area Career Center.

In the summer, Sterling has dedicated classrooms that teach reading, math and asset development (social and emotional learning).

Each kindergarten to second grade class has a teacher and aide, classes in grades three through five have a teacher and a foster grandparent for instruction.

Its $20,000 budget, funded by grants from YMCA of the USA, covers 80 students, six teachers, three aides and secretary, plus supplies, snacks and transportation.

Thanks to a grant from the Walmart Foundation, issued through YMCA of the USA, “5 years ago our budget was $35,000,” said Melissa Ryan-Bergstrom, the Ys interim director.

Next year, only $10,000 is guaranteed, so Ryan-Bergstrom is seeking three other $10,000 grants through the YMCA of the USA.

If she succeeds, the money will be used to provide transportation to more children enrolled in the program, hire more teachers, reach more students and incorporate nutrition into the curriculum.

If the trend continues, though, they may have to further restrict programming, limit resources proved to the students, and even cut back on the number of students served.

The Y also runs a summer school program for Rock Falls Elementary School District students.

That program is funded by a 3-year, federal 21st Century grant that started at $300,000 in 2013, but now is down to $150,000 for 3 years. It’s up for renewal in 2 years.

The Rock Falls program is considerably larger than Sterling’s: It runs year round, serving 120 student during the school year and more than 100 in the summer, when classes run from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at Merrill School.

In the summer, students rotate through five classes: Science, technology, engineering and math (the S.T.E.M. curriculum), physical education, social and emotional learning, and reading.

During the school year, Rock Falls Middle School contracts with Woodlawn Arts Academy to provide drama; also available: art and tutoring.

They also get breakfast through the Let’s Feed Our Children program of the United Way of Whiteside County and lunch and a snack through the U.S. Department of Agriculture food service program.

About a dozen teachers staff the program; the bulk of the grant is used for salaries.

The second-biggest expense – and one of the most important keys to sustaining summer school – is transportation. If rides weren’t provided, many children wouldn’t be able to attend school.

But because of the decrease in funding, “We’ve had to limit the amount of kids we provide transportation to,” Bergstrom said. As a result, some programming is falling by the wayside.

“We used to offer additional programming, partnering with the Chamber of Commerce, Salvation Army and spending a day at the Rock Falls Community building,” she said Bergstrom said.

But for now the programming is taking back seat to ensure the sustainability of summer school.

The Y could apply for a 21st Century grant for the Sterling program, but it comes with expensive requirements – including hiring a project coordinator and evaluator.

“It would be a huge benefit, but with the resources we have right now, it would be hard to fit in,” Bergstrom said.

All those challenges haven’t stopped the Y from doing do all it can to keep the program alive – applying for more grants, reaching out to community partners, whatever it takes.

The program not only helped Scott get back on her feet, but the girls also benefited from continued learning year round.

In fact, the program is crucial for Serenity, who has a learning disability. “The doctors said she regresses when she isn’t in school,” Scott said.

For now, existing funds will help keep the program alive through the next year. It’s next year that Y CEO Trish Klaver is preparing for.

“If we are unable to keep funding up, we’ll look into partnering with the schools to keep the program,” Klaver said.

“The YMCA will do anything they can to keep this program sustainable because it is a much-needed community program.”

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