Of the many factors that make it challenging for low-income students to keep pace academically with their higher-income peers, one of the biggest contributors to the achievement gap is the so-called “summer slide”. According to the National Summer Learning Association, summer learning loss accounts for about two-thirds of the ninth grade achievement gap in reading. 

Given its goal of empowering Tennis2College students—87 percent of whom live in low-income households—to graduate from high school with a strong post-secondary trajectory, this is an issue that Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center (The Fort) has not been able to ignore.

This summer, The Fort debuted a new initiative designed to tackle the summer-slide: Tennis2College Summer Camp, a six-week program that took place, unusually, in the afternoon to allow summer-school students to sign up.

And sign up they did. 52 3rd - 8th graders enrolled, and FWTEC Executive Director Tom Miller says attendance was “really good”—a sign that the program won over attendees.

“In the past, we’ve had a really hard time providing programs that engaged kids throughout the summer,” says Tom. “This was a very successful launch.”

The camp was structured much like the school-year Tennis2College programs, with kids’ time split between on-court tennis instruction and off-court life skills activities and discussion.

“A summer for an elementary or middle school kid should be active, fun and engaging,” says Derek Carlson, who teaches Kindergarten at Lake Harriet Lower Campus and helped lead the summer program. “They should have a lot of opportunities to explore, question, laugh, be safe and have fun.”

“We got a lot of really positive feedback from kids about the balance of activities,” says Justin Margolies, program coordinator for The Fort Middle School Programs, another leading organizers of the summer camp. “They really liked the off-court activities, which was great because we were trying to make them educational.”

Each week had a theme like “teamwork”, “inquiry” or “leadership. Camp leaders Justin, Derek and Americorps Public Ally Amira Jama worked with four paid high school interns and three volunteer middle-school coaches (Tennis2College students themselves, during the schoolyear) to lead the students through activities and discussions revolving around the themes.

A tower-building competition was one highlight of the teamwork week; during the leadership week, the students completed a blindfolded trust activity and then reflected on their experiences.

“Most of the activities didn’t involved pencil and paper,” says Justin. “It was experiential learning versus just hearing or reading about something, and the youth responded really well.”

Field trips to the Como Zoo, Fort Snelling, the swimming pool and an “Amazing Race”-style journey through downtown Minneapolis also got good reactions.