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At its best, this column gives parents information they can actually use, in a way they can actually understand.

I’ve written about how to navigate school choice, why teachers are shuffled in the first months of school and how real estate sites like Zillow rate school quality.

I’m also proud to say that I’ve tackled hard-hitting questions, like why music teachers insist kids play the recorder – even though it’s objectively true that the recorder is the world’s most annoying instrument.

But, despite past wins, this week I may be up against the hardest question of all: What options do parents have when it comes to watching, educating and entertaining their kids for the summer?

It’s a deceptively complicated question that vexes parents of all backgrounds. For kids, summer means freedom from homework, camps, or, as it did for me, a time to cruise the streets on a bike, talking nonsense and hunting for mischief.

For parents, though, summer means something very different. A recent New York Times story about the costs of summer frames the issue well:

“What are your kids up to this summer? Sounds like a casual question. But for working parents at this time of year, it’s loaded. What have you managed to pull together that will keep your kids engaged, healthy, happy and safe, while still allowing you to keep feeding and clothing them? For most parents, summer, that beloved institution, is a financial and logistical nightmare.”

That story, though, is less about what a pain it is to plan for summer and more about how difficult it is for low-income families to afford the things that actually enrich a child’s learning experience.

“In 2014, parents reported planning to spend an average of $958 per child on summer expenses,” reports the Times. “Those who can’t afford camps or summer learning programs cobble together care from family members or friends, or are forced to leave children home alone.”

That squares with the experience of Gina Gianzero, who leads a partnership of more than 30 service providers who come together to provide summer-enrichment opportunities to kids in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods.

Gianzero surveys parents whose children participate in the free summer reading program at Chollas Mead Elementary school. She asks parents what their kids would be doing if they weren’t attending the program. The most common response, Gianzero says, is, “They’d be at home, watching TV.”

The school district doesn’t actually track what kids do over the summer, which is interesting from a data standpoint. That is, the school district tracks progress for each kid over nine months, but has no clue what kids are doing for roughly a quarter of the calendar year.

And that matters for the summer slide. Research shows low-income student lose more than two months in reading achievement over the summer, while their middle-class peers make slight gains.

Researchers chalk some of this up to the fact that middle- and upper-class kids have better access to camps, enrichment activities and books.

That’s a long way of saying it matters what kids do over the summer. But finding those opportunities is a challenge, in itself. Parents say they don’t get much guidance from the school about what to do with kids over the summer.

And earlier this week, when I asked the district communication’s office if they put together any sort of summer resource guide for families, all I heard back was crickets.

Image via Shutterstock

Instead, most parents seem to hear about camps and programs through a kind of informal parent network.

So I’ve put together a short list of affordable options that are out there. This is by no means comprehensive, but could give you a place to start if you’re still looking for things to do.

Program: Summer Readers, Future Leaders

Place: Chollas Mead and Johnson Elementary (Southeastern San Diego)

Cost: Free

Chollas Mead is a good place to start because it sets a kind of gold standard, locally, for affordable summer programs.

This isn’t “summer school” in the traditional sense. Although the program is focused on improving early literacy (about 80 percent of students make gains in reading by the end of the summer), this isn’t a continuation of what kids learn during the school year. The key word here is enrichment.

Near Chollas Mead is an outdoor science lab, where kids make connections to plants and animals they’re reading about in class. Naturalists from Groundwork San Diego deliver lessons with help from students from UC San Diego. Students take regular trips to the Malcolm X Library and incorporate dance and art into coursework. This year, students will take trips up to Balboa Park, where they and their families will get free admission to museums.

Photo by Dustin Michelson

The only drawback might be that the programs can’t serve enough kids. School board member Richard Barrera said last year of Chollas Mead: “This is exactly the kind of summer school program that we’d like to see expanded,” to 30 high-poverty schools, districtwide.

But that will have to wait. Right now, the program is only offered to students at Chollas Mead and Johnson Elementary. And in order for it to expand, it would need more money from the school district, city or philanthropists.

Program: PrimeTime

Place: San Diego Unified Schools

Cost: Free

San Diego Unified offers summer programs at 25 schools in the district. You can find out if your nearest school offers PrimeTime by checking out the district website. There you’ll also find the application for the program, though space is probably already filled for this summer.

The district does a pretty terrible job of marketing these programs, but at no cost, they could be especially beneficial to low-income families. The district pegs PrimeTime as a way to provide “a safe place where students can strengthen their academic skills and participate in age-appropriate enrichment activities within the areas of Art, Science, Music and Athletics, while improving social skills.” YMCA staff usually go to schools to help run the program on site.

The big rub here is that there aren’t enough spots to go around. And, if you get in, you have to pick up kids by 4:30. That may take some coordination if you have to work until 5 or 6.

Program: All kinds of summer camps

Place: YMCA (Programs vary by location)

Cost: $80 to $460 a week

The websites for local YMCAs are a little clunky. Different YMCAs offer different programs, so you’ll have to go to look at YMCA branches individually if you want to see what they offer.

That said, YMCAs actually offer a great variety of summer camps. At the Mission Valley YMCA, kids can tumble into gymnastics camp, soccer academy or something called, intriguingly, “Junkyard Music.” It also offers more traditional day camps, as does the Copley-Price Y in City Heights.

Most of these camps will run parents around $250 a week, and a bit more than that if you’re not a member of the YMCA. If you were to send your kids to the Y for 10 weeks of classes, you’d be looking at $2,500 for the summer.

Financial aid is available, based on need. You have to bring in proof of income. But parents who are approved wouldn’t pay any more than $80 a week.

The sticking point, once again, is that a lot of the programs end around 4 p.m. So, if you work until 5 or 6, you’d have to either figure out transportation or shell out a little extra money for an extended day.

Program: Ultimate Summer Camp

Place: Boys and Girls Club

Cost: $70 registration fee + $120 week

These camps sound like a lot of fun. I mean, it’s called the ultimate summer camp, for one. Secondly, each week has different theme. There’s Treasure Island, Space Invader and even an Aloha Week.

Program: Various

Place: City libraries (various branches)

Cost: Free

San Diego Libraries offer a variety of programs and free classes for kids, including the summer reading program, where kids can read books and win prizes. Check out what’s available at your nearest library branch.

If none of these opportunities sounds exciting, you can also check out the more comprehensive resource guide San Diego Family magazine put together.

And finally, if you’ve found other camps or summer programs that were good experiences for your kids, feel free to share below in the comments section. Some parents, present company included, might still be looking for things their kids can do this summer.

Rachel Evans contributed to this story.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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