It’s three weeks until school starts in Oregon. It can’t come too soon for parents who are struggling to keep their kids fed, supervised, and learning, over the summer.
Leyna is entering second grade at Earl Boyles Elementary in the David Douglas district. She’s part of OPB’s Class of 2025. Leyna’s had a relaxed - her Mom might say “lazy” - summer.
“I play with my sister. We listen to music on my iPad and dance,” Leyna says.
And Leyna’s gotten out of the house occasionally, to cool off.
Leyna: “I go to the water park when it’s hot.”
Rob: “How close is the water park?”
Leyna: “It’s close, around the block.”
Leyna’s Mom is home with the kids. Dad has struggled to find steady work. The family qualifies for free lunch at school.
Last summer, Leyna could get a free lunch - and morning classes at Earl Boyles Elementary, across the street. But this summer, it’s under construction.
There are free lunches at Ron Russell Middle School, next door. But there are no activities. So Mom, Lan Nguyen, can’t get Leyna to go.
“Ron Russell - it gives free lunch. I say, ‘well, you want to take your sister, and Mom, and we’ll go over there and eat?’ ‘No, I just don’t want to - I don’t feel like to eat.’ I’m like ‘Why?’ She says ‘no, I just want to stay home, play my game.’”
Even when the kids are motivated to get the free lunch, the state’s 600 meal sites don’t reach everyone.
The St. Helens district runs a meal program out of a popular city park, to attract more families.
“This is a taquito, and this is what’s left of our chicken, we do baked chicken. The ranch, and the carrots, and an apple,” St. Helens nutrition director, Misty Crawford says, looking at what’s left of lunch.
Her small staff and old van provide 420 meals a day, across three sites in St. Helens and Scappoose. It’s a fraction of the more than 2000 students in the area, who qualify for subsidized lunches, during the school year. The main problem is funding.
“I would love to be able to reach more students - or children - because this is for all kids, 1 through 18. One of the stumbling blocks we face is staffing, and logistically, we have antiquated vehicles - we are expected to operate on a break-even basis,” Crawford says.
The St. Helens program reaches about one in five needy students in the district, and Scappoose, next door. The David Douglas School District - where most of OPB’s Class of 2025 students go to school - does only slightly better than that, reaching about one in four low-income students.
It’s tough to provide summer classes to everyone who needs them, too.
In David Douglas, school construction forced summer program providers to consolidate classes at fewer buildings. As a result, fewer kids can attend. So, Meghan Gabriel with the Schools Uniting Neighborhoods summer program, has focused on students who are behind in reading.
“So we’re really looking at those kids that need help with maintaining, but will probably make gains. We’ve seen gains out of 16 days of this program, that will blow your mind,” Gabriel says.
That decision left some kids on the outside looking in, like Lan Nguyen’s daughter, Leyna.
“I did ask the teacher at SUN school - and she said ‘it’s for the kids that need it.,” Lan says.
Nguyen says she lobbied for Leyna to be included, but she didn’t fit the profile of a student in need of reading assistance.
“So I say ‘Oh, Leyna need help.’ She been lazy now, so I’m watching her. That’s why sometimes I have to play ‘evil Mom.’ “
Nguyen says she took Leyna’s old school work, erased the answers, and had Leyna do the work over again.
Back at the SUN school program, Leyna’s classmate, Osvaldo is getting help with his reading. Osvaldo says he likes the art classes, but reading? He’s getting tired of the book about wrestling in front of him.
Osvaldo: “Reading? Not so much. We don’t have a lot of books, we just have that shelf right there, and that shelf over there.”
Rob: “Right. Are there a couple of books you like, or not books you like?”
Osvaldo: “Pretty much the only book I like is this one.”
Of course, Osvaldo also gets lunch as a SUN student. It makes him miss his old school, where he’ll be going in September.
Osvaldo: “They’re not the best thing. I thought at Earl Boyles Elementary School is better food, has better food.”
“Um, and that’s interesting. It’s true, we get a lot of different reactions from kids about different food. We know it’s all healthy, but some kids prefer different things,” says Lesley Nelson with Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.
She says even though it’d be less expensive to launch more lunch programs - without activities - she likes the model of combining academic activities and food. That’s in part, because they’re more attractive to kids, like Leyna.
“We need to make sure that kids and families are able to access food in a variety of settings. But when it comes to programming like this, where it does cost additional money, that makes a huge difference and I would say it is worth the extra dollars every time, because it’s an opportunity to prevent kids from experiencing that summer learning loss,” Nelson says.
Researchers say as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students is attributable to what happens over the summer. Oregon’s summer vacation is among the longest in the country.
This project is part of American Graduate — Let’s Make It Happen! — a public broadcasting initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.