Dreamcatchers: Blount County’s Safe, Happy and Successful Summer Learning Camp

By Mitchie Neel
Executive Director
Blount County Education Foundation

Dreamcatchers 2020, a summer learning program supported by the Blount County Education Foundation (BCEF), was an amazing experience.  In this our fifth year, new challenges and obstacles arose due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Amazingly, those challenges did not prevent the experience from being impactful on our students.  Let me tell you why.

Dreamcatchers began five years ago as a means to have students from a rural area of Blount County to be at school in the summer, experience highly engaging learning activities, and get to participate in the school district’s summer feeding program through a grant awarded by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and United Way of Central Alabama.

At the same time BCEF applied to be a SAIL (Summer Adventures in Learning) Coalition program and was fortunate enough to receive additional funding for Dreamcatchers, allowing the program to serve many more students than originally planned.

We invited summer staff to work based on our needed expertise, not the least of which was teachers who were very successful at taking struggling students and working to close their academic achievement gaps.

Using research on what works best in summer learning, knowledge gained from our own history of summer learning (BCEF has operated summer learning programs for MANY years centered around library access and academic camps that meet student interests and talents.), and guidelines from grantors, we’ve developed a plan which has morphed over the years into a very successful model.

The model provides academic, social, and emotional learning experiences to guide students to make better decisions.  It focuses on development of the whole child through a variety of activities provided on a daily basis throughout the weeks of camp.

What Do Students Do at Dreamcatchers? 

Students from grades K-5 do sessions each day in reading, math, library/literacy, and enrichment.  The enrichment sessions are a rotation of art, music, STEAM, and then something else.  This year the something else was a study of countries of the world and geography.  Other years’ something else included movement, a fitness obstacle course, Spanish, and drama.

In previous years, Fridays have been an alternate schedule, call “Fun Fridays” with specialsguests, field trips to places like the Blountsville Historical Park, and special days like Water Day.  This year we had to shorten the program to three weeks and all five days were the same schedule.

Always, no matter what we are doing, highly engaging learning activities are at the core. Sometimes the students don’t realize how much they are learning through an experience.  They just think they are having fun.

This year’s camp could not include field trips and we were worried the students would be disappointed.  The staff worked very hard to make what we could do at camp be even more exciting.  We must have been successful because the camp, held at Susan Moore Elementary, included 97 students with an average daily attendance of 92 students. We were amazed!!

Of course, we also know that the students were thrilled to just get to be at school in a learning environment with other kids – something that was taken from them in March when the schools closed.

To make sure we provided the safest environment possible, Dreamcatchers followed all the guidelines that were in place for our midsummer time period. These included masks, distancing, static groups, grab and go meals, providing personal supplies for each student, assigned seats in classroom and on buses.

We added an additional bus route, to have 4 instead of 3, to keep bus occupancy low.  And, of course, lots of hand washing and use of hand sanitizer. We employed an additional full time custodian and a part-time one to help with cleaning and sanitizing. Rooms were cleaned and sanitized each afternoon, including being sprayed with Clorox 360 machines.

All children and staff were soooooo cooperative about following guidelines. The students were very happy to be at school in a learning environment with caring staff! We did not have any cases during the program and no follow up issues either. We haven’t had a single instance of Covid confirmed that linked to the program.

The Results Tell the Story of a Great Summer

If you had told me before we began Dreamcatchers 2020 that so many of our staff would tell me afterwards it was the best year ever, I would have told you “no way.” But they did. It was  a truly amazing accomplishment considering all the challenges we faced – a great camp that impacted many children’s lives in our county.

Academically, the composite gain in reading was 5 months and in math, 3 months!  Truly an accomplishment in only THREE weeks!  These gains were also realized in the self-contained classes, with kindergarten gaining an average of 77 Scale Points and first grade an average of 115 Scale Points, both very significant.  This academic gain was possible due to relentless efforts of our teachers, who were able to help some students gain over a year.

Students typically experience a summer slide, and this year our campters were at risk of experiencing both spring and summer slide. Dreamcatchers helped us negate that slide for 97 children.

When we tallied our program-end surveys, the Dreamcatchers 2020 composite program response rating was 4.99 out of a possible 5.00, the highest EVER, delivered in the middle of a pandemic. We are convinced the Dreamcatcher emphasis on social and emotional learning along with the focus on academics and fun is the right summer program model.

Our Focus on the Whole Child

Our dream of expanding the community outreach of Dreamcatchers became reality this year, with additional grant funding allowing the team to focus on more than school needs for the students.

We were able to provide transportation to all but nine of our participants, which helped make it possible for us to average 92 on daily attendance.  While some things weren’t possible at all, like field trips, our team worked to do everything possible to increase community outreach – which was even MORE important due to the impact of the coronavirus.

Parents were contacted in various ways so we could have important conversations with them and support them in the ways needed.  Weekly food boxes were distributed which included 17 pounds of food that would provide the entire family with several meals each weekend.  We loaded them on the buses and the students just picked up their box on their way off the bus each Friday.

Each child also received a Care Bag, which included a towel, washcloth, soap, shampoo, toothbrush, tooth paste, and hand sanitizer.  We were truly astounded at the response to these bags, helping us realize how much many of these students need the outreach we dreamed of providing.

When the goal of providing a Dreamcatchers Boutique was not possible, the Community Team developed a Plan B and WOW, what a plan it was.  The Boutique became Sneakers Day with some other clothing included.  This marks my forty-third year in education and I have NEVER experienced anything like the distribution of those bags with quality sneakers and clothing in them, especially selected for each child.  It was truly a blessing to get to be there and witness that kind of joy and happiness.

So Thankful for Community and Foundation Support

Dreamcatchers Camp wouldn’t happen without the efforts of a dedicated and committed staff. Nothing would be possible without these folks who give their all to Dreamcatchers to make a lasting impact on the lives of our students.

Dreamcatchers 2020 occurred in spite of tremendous challenges in this unprecedented and unanticipated year.  In true educator fashion, teachers, support staff, parents, and of course, students came together for a hugely successful summer camp.

Dreamcatchers is possible thanks to grants awarded to the Blount County Education Foundation. Without these grants there would be no Dreamcatchers. The hugely positive response from students and families this summer solidifies the need for community outreach and support to continue so Dreamcatchers can have an even bigger impact. We’re looking forward to next year!

Mitchie Neel is the Executive Director of the Blount County Education Foundation. She retired as curriculum coordinator for Blount County Schools in 2009. She’s active in the Bold Goals Coalition, past president of the Blount County Literacy Council and a member of the Blount-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce.