Zenobia Jackson enrolled her son in the Camden school district’s summer program for the first time this year.

She had several choices for how to fill her child’s summer. Would it be a sports program, a faith-based camp, or free academics?

Jackson ultimately registered for the district’s free program at H.B. Wilson Family School, one of two public school sites open for summer school, which begins Monday. She knew it was free. She heard buses could transport Kyheir, 8, on the five-minute ride from Yorkship Elementary School, which he attends during the school year.

And Jackson was pleased that despite overall cutbacks to the 2019-20 school budget, the summer programs would not be touched.

Christie Whitzell, chief of staff for school support in the Camden City School District, said the school district maintained funding because it recognized the program’s importance for the district’s more than 3,300 kindergarten and elementary school students.

She cited the fear of “summer slide" — the risk of diminished academic prowess while kids are away from school. Specifically, low-income students stand to lose two to three months’ worth of reading proficiency during the summer, according to the National Summer Learning Association.

In a city like Camden — which, according to 2017 Census figures, has a 37.4 percent poverty level and a median household income of just over $26,000 — many children are perched to slip down the “slide.”

The students have more than academics at risk in the summer. Beyond education, schools often provide food security.

According to the Camden Healthy Communities report for fiscal year 2014, the city’s food insecurity rate was 35 percent.

The school district provides these essentials — academic stimulation, enrichment activities, breakfast and lunch — and fun.

Nearly 650 middle and elementary school children have already signed up for summer school. That number stands to grow as the district will offer on-site registration at the two elementary schools — H.B. Wilson and Octavius V. Catto Community Family School — the first week of the program.

Other Camden parents have chosen alternatives to the district program, citing the need for longer hours of supervision during the day or limited transportation access to the two public schools. The city’s charter and Renaissance schools also offer programs. Some families have funds, although limited, to pay for a camp.

Clayton Gonzalez remembers summers growing up in Camden in the late 1990s. He recalls huddling on the grass of Atlantic Square Park to make ice cream with his classmates under the sweltering sun.

Sure, he was in school. But he was having fun.

Back in those days, Gonzalez said, seemingly every elementary school student attended summer school. Now, he’s a parent of two young children and has choices.

“The more options that we have as parents, the more that we feel like our opinion is valued,” Gonzalez said. “If one thing doesn’t work out, I can go somewhere else.”

For his son, Clayton, 5, who attends Veterans Memorial Family School, Gonzalez chose the “going somewhere else” option. He enrolled his son in the Camden Salvation Army Kroc Center summer camp, in part because of the extended hours, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and because of his dissatisfaction with transportation to the district’s two schools.

Gonzalez grew up at a time in which each individual school offered a summer program. But the number has dwindled — from seven to three to the current two that have been open for the last three summers

Whitzell said the district consolidated to two sites to increase enrollment at each program and allow for required maintenance at other schools during July and August.

Hillary Jones, the Kroc Center’s education and senior programs manager, said the popularity of the eight-week camp has increased. When the program started five years ago, registration filled up in early May. This year, registration capped just three weeks after it opened on Feb. 1.

The appeal of the Kroc Center derives from a variety of factors, Jones said, but many parents say they gravitate to the program for its long hours.

The Kroc Center is not the only non-district group offering activities for elementary-age children. The Neighborhood Center in Camden has its own summer program — Camp Kumbaya — from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., available to families on a sliding scale based on household income.

Dorothy J. Scott, associate director of the Neighborhood Center, said while the center’s camp is affordable, the district offers something it doesn’t — it’s free for everyone.

“When they have less that they’re offering, I do think our enrollment increases,” Scott said.

Whitzell said the school district has maintained consistent enrollment levels in recent years.

This summer, 24 general education instructors, 12 bilingual teachers, and 72 extended school year instructors who support disabled students will work at the two schools, which are air-conditioned.

Clockwise from top right: Megan Cox, educator, meets with teachers Yolanda Jackson, Tom Levy, and Sturae Meyers during teacher orientation at the Octavius V. Catto Community Family School in Camden on Monday, July 1, 2019.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Clockwise from top right: Megan Cox, educator, meets with teachers Yolanda Jackson, Tom Levy, and Sturae Meyers during teacher orientation at the Octavius V. Catto Community Family School in Camden on Monday, July 1, 2019.

During the academic year, free meals provided by the school district are critical. The Kroc Center, the Neighborhood Center, and the public summer schools are some of the many programs that will provide free breakfast and lunch.

For children not enrolled in these programs, several businesses and the Food Bank of South Jersey are offering help.

The Millennium Skate World welcomes children for free weeknight dinners, and Miguel’s Pharmacy in Cramer Hill has partnered with the food bank to offer free lunch to those under 18 Monday through Thursday.

“For most of these kids, most of the meals that are incorporated into their lives is actually given at the schools,” said Miguel Arriaga, owner of Miguel’s Pharmacy.

Vanteisha Rosario, age 4, eats lunch at Miguel's Pharmacy in Camden on Monday, July 1, 2019. Miguel's Pharmacy serves free lunches, provided by the Food Bank of South Jersey, to Camden's kids.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Vanteisha Rosario, age 4, eats lunch at Miguel's Pharmacy in Camden on Monday, July 1, 2019. Miguel's Pharmacy serves free lunches, provided by the Food Bank of South Jersey, to Camden's kids.

Arriaga, a Camden native, said the pharmacy has been handing out about 90 lunches a day since the program began June 17.

Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, said summer programs are crucial to a child’s development.

“Those kids eat those recreation lunches,” said Benson. “And people eat because they’re hungry. We can’t always assume that everyone’s going home to three square meals a day.”

Benson criticized the decrease in the number of public school sites open for the summer. He said this loss of access to schools means fewer structured environments for kids.

“What happens to that child who does not have the money to go to [a private program]?” Benson asked. Noting that some camps do offer affordable rates, he added: “Even still, that’s asking community groups to fill a void the public collectively is supposed to be delivering.”