As reported earlier this summer, the Blount County Education Foundation and the Blount County Board of Education’s summer camps took on a different twist this year due to COVID-19. BCEF executive director Mitchie Neel said, “Camps looked very different this year, and we really did not know what to expect. Despite all of the challenges with COVID, and trying to squeeze them in, we had great success.”
Utilizing the internet, most on-site camps were replaced with nine virtual camps that focused on cooking, arts, and other STEAM activities. Educational leaders provided inspirational instruction to engage students in a new and different way. The virtual camps, which ran on the BCEF Facebook page each Tuesday and Thursday, were deemed successful with 4,657 views that reached 8,022.
After determining that summer camps were a go, the summer library learning program morphed into the Summer Literacy Learning Camps. Several schools hosted an entire week of in-person camps with the purpose of providing support in the implementation of the Literacy Art. Adhering to COVID-19 guidelines, a total of 393 attended the one-week literacy camps.
Within minutes of the call going out about registration for the popular Dreamcatcher camp, more than 40 students had signed up. The camp served 97 students from Appalachian, Susan Moore, Cleveland, and Blountsville, with a 97 percent attendance rate. Students were provided breakfast and lunch through the BCBOE Summer Feeding Program.
Blountsville Elementary principal Shannon Lakey said, “The teachers and students were all fired up to be there. The parents were thrilled to have this opportunity. It was such an amazing week.”
Susan Moore Elementary hosted the shortened three-week on-campus Dreamcatcher’s Camp. With a motto of “Work Hard, Play Hard,” students were pushed hard academically, but were also provided with instruction and fun enrichment activities. Summer camp instructional coach Linda Johnson said, “We all know the effects of the summer slide on reading achievement, especially on children who are at-risk due to one or more diverse situations. But this summer, we were dealing with spring and summer slide.”
Because the teachers felt a sense of urgency, they chose activities that contstantly engaged the students in learning or in purposeful practice of reading from the minute they walked into the classroom. Using pre-test data, teachers were able to provide another dose of reading intervention to the most fragile students.
Fortunately, the data from Dreamcatchers 2020 shows that academic growth can be accomplished rather quickly. Several students gained over a year’s progress in reading and math in spite of being in the program only three weeks.
Camp began at 7:30 a.m. each morning and did not stop until 3 p.m. Neel said, “We did as much as we possibly could in those three weeks. The teachers did a phenomenal job.” One part of the camp explored different countries of the world and ended with a world showcase parade on the last day.
Locust Fork’s Teresa Latham was once again Dreamcatchers Camp nurse. She said, “This was the best summer that I’ve had the privilege of being a part of. The kids didn’t mind wearing masks. They transitioned so well. They were learning and doing. They were happy. Seeing teachers there with the kids and how excited they were to have them back was so heartwarming.”
Susan Moore Elementary principal and Dreamcathers Camp coordinator Tammy McMinn acknowledged the importance of this year’s camp as the students have been out of classroom instruction since March 13. She said, “This year’s camp was so important to all of us, even more so than in the past. We know the struggles of our kids, and it’s been hard not having them all of these months.
“It was hugely important for us to find a way to make this happen. Dreamcatchers means so much, but this year it was so much more. It brought normalcy back to them. And, it really amazingly went off without a hitch. It gave our teachers and our parents confidence that we can all do this together. For the kids, it’s exciting, fun, and motivational. We make it a fun place to be so they enjoy it and come back not just academically confident, but also confident that they can do anything.”
A new part of camp this year involved a $33,000 grant designated for a community project. Because of the pandemic, the Dreamcatcher team had to find a different strategy to use the grant money in a way that would have an impact on the community without them actually going out into the community.
With that in mind, the team decided to buy each child who attended a new pair of quality shoes, a pair of capris for the girls and shorts for the boys, three program shirts, and a care bag that included a washcloth, towel, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and a lidded cup.
Latham went on to say, “We wound up focusing on a brand new, quality pair of shoes. We thought it would be great if we could do more, but we had to get the shoes. The joys of watching the students open those shoes, and the excitement of the boys getting a new pair of Nikes and the girls getting a brand new sparkling pair of sneakers is something so special that I have never been a part of. It was very humbling. Even if they didn’t gain anything academically, it was still worth it. It was worth being there with the kids and for the kids to be there with us.”
Neel concurred about seeing the children’s faces light up when they opened their packages and said, “It was truly magical. It made you realize what they don’t have.”
As administrators looked at the success of this year’s camps, they were extremely thankful for all of the partners and grant money that helped make the 2020 summer camps successful. They were proud to be a part of this wonderful learning opportunity for Blount County students in a year full of uncertainties.
Bridgette Murphree summed up the summer reading program perfectly by saying, “These students are worth it. This community is worth it. We are excited about the possibilities of moving forward.”