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Arizona sets aside $100 million for new summer camp program

Parents who think their kids need a bit of an academic boost can begin signing up this coming week to send them to summer camp.

But, for the most part, it won't be the kind of place with boating and archery. Instead, it's designed to help them catch up with what they may have missed due to COVID-19.

The focus, Gov. Doug Ducey said Wednesday, will be on reading, math and American civics.

"This couldn't come at a more pressing time,'' he said. "Last year just 38% of our students passed the statewide English arts test,'' the governor said. "And only 31% passed the math test.''

Ducey said, though, this eight-week program will be more than kids parked at their desks.

"This is truly a camp, with activities, games, peer learning and so much more to look forward to,'' he said.

Former state schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, whom Ducey tapped to run the program, said some of these will be operated at public schools, with teachers paid extra to staff the operations. But she also said that the state is looking to partner with other organizations, like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts who can offer programs that include the necessary academics as well as something more to keep kids interested and engaged.

And there's something else she said is important after all of the remote learning.

"This is the time to re-engage,'' Keegan said. "Our children deserve experiences that reconnect them with the joys of learning,'' she continued. "And they need to be able to be with their friends as themselves personally and not as avatars.''

All of this will be free. Ducey said he has set aside $100 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds, enough, he said, for about 250,000 students to enroll in these eight-week programs. And he promised to find additional dollars if the demand is higher.

Enrollment starts Monday at  ontrack.az.gov.

Keegan said parents actually will be presented with multiple options from which to choose, giving them an opportunity to select a program they believe is best suited for their children.

Keegan said she anticipates some organizations wanting to provide shorter and more-intense training, such as a four-week course in math. That provides the opportunity to enroll in a second program for the balance of the session. And they will be tailored to individual needs.

Enrollment is open to students as young as those just entering kindergarten this year. And Keegan said even high school seniors who don't get all the credits they need to graduate will find programs. She also said that the schools and other organizations that are selected to offer the programs will provide transportation. But there is one restriction: The program is open only to students in traditional public and charter schools. Youngsters are private or parochial schools are ineligible.

The first step, she said, is doing outreach. Keegan promised a lot of promotion, including working with schools to ensure their students — and their parents — are aware of the option.

There is one other issue: finding qualified teachers to staff the programs in a state where schools have had a hard time filling vacancies.

"That is the biggest issue for all of our schools,'' Keegan said.

Arizona schools have been facing a teacher shortage for years.

Keegan said she is looking to attract teachers at job fairs as well as going to teacher organizations. And she said that students in teacher preparatory programs also could be used.

She said, though, that there will be compensation for teachers willing to give up some of their summer vacations.

Ducey said there's one other benefit of the program. He said it could give a break to parents who, in many cases, had to stay home while schools were closed.

"For those with the option of remote work, they balanced being a full-time parent with having a full-time job,'' the governor said. In some cases, he said, they had to juggle two or three jobs. 

"But not everyone was fortunate enough to have the option of remote work,'' Ducey said. "Many of them had to step away from their job, prioritize their children and stay home to care for the kids.''