GWEN IFILL: Reading, writing, and pitching? Those activities aren’t often linked together at camp, but we have one exception. The story comes from special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television, which produces education stories for the “NewsHour.”
JOHN TULENKO: Summer’s nearly over, and, for millions of kids, that’s good news. Ron Fairchild directs the National Center for Summer Learning.
RON FAIRCHILD, executive director, National Center for Summer Learning: While many of us hold this wonderful idyllic notion of what summer is about for kids — it’s this wonderful time for kids to be kids, for all this freedom, for exploration — the reality is, is that there are millions of kids in this country that don’t have access to that, for whom summer vacation represents a major setback and risk.
JOHN TULENKO: The risk is highest in communities like East Harlem, New York. When school is out, many kids have nowhere to go but the streets. Richard Berlin works with neighborhood youth.
RICHARD BERLIN, executive director, Harlem RBI: And there is intense poverty here, just a sense of hopelessness. Kids get into gangs. Kids go to jail. Kids get on drugs. These things happen in all communities, but they happen way too much in poor communities.
JOHN TULENKO: That’s where Harlem RBI comes in. It’s a free six-week-long summer day camp and a year-round after-school program combining baseball with academics. Berlin is the director.
RICHARD BERLIN: During the summer, it is essentially a full-day literacy and baseball camp. Kids are learning in the classroom, with professional teachers and college students as teachers’ aides. From 9:00 until 12:00, they have breakfast here, they have lunch here. And then they’re on the ball field in the afternoon.
Keeping kids from falling behind
JOHN TULENKO: Over 700 boys and girls, ages 6 to 18, enroll on a first-come/first-serve basis. Days start with reading. The goal is to avoid a major summer risk that affects disadvantaged kids most: falling behind in school.
MEGAN HATSCHECK, teacher: Being a regular-school-year teacher, I find that a lot of my kids will go away for the summer, and haven't picked up a book. It's awful, when they come back and they're one or two reading levels behind where they left the year before.
JOHN TULENKO: Megan Hatscheck works summers at RBI. During the school year, she teaches in public school, where there's more and more pressure to show results.
MEGAN HATSCHECK: My days are so strict and structured, and there is less time for pleasure reading. You feel that urgency to make up a lot of the missed years of school.
ANITA CHANG, teacher: Before we start, who can tell me what was the last thing that we read yesterday in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"? Where were we last?
JOHN TULENKO: Anita Chang is another public school teacher who works summers at RBI.
ANITA CHANG: I think, sometimes, in the summertime, the kids are like, woo. You know, we're off. We don't have to read. We don't have to practice the reading skill anymore. But, when they come to this program, we're kind of sneaking it in. We do get to read graphic novels and more fun books, I guess you could say, higher-interest books for the kids.
JOHN TULENKO: The focus on reading for pleasure appears to work.
RICHARD BERLIN: Over 90 percent of the kids go back to school in September either having not lost any months or having made significant gains. We have kids who come here who will read 40 books, 50 books in a summer.
JOHN TULENKO: But baseball is the main motivator. RBI has 20 teams that play each other. Each week, the team that scores the most runs wins a prize. Runs can be earned on and off the field.
RICHARD BERLIN: Your team only wins the runs rally if you demonstrated the value of the week, respect, teamwork, effort, responsibility, if you did your book report, if you read three books, instead of one, or if you were just a good teammate on the field and supporting somebody when they struck out. Those are the things that are important here.
Incorporating community service
JOHN TULENKO: Older teenagers are also part of RBI. Besides baseball, their summers are full of workshops and community service. This group is planting a garden at a public housing project. They will also get intense academic help through high school to keep them on a path to success.
How many of you are in college or going to college? These young men and women grew up in RBI and are the first in their families to attend college.
MICHAEL MONTES, coach, Harlem RBI: Being in RBI, you know, RBI made me realize what are the most important things in my life. And the most important thing is my school, is my education. You know, and we understand that baseball is part of RBI, but college is an achievement that you want to get through.
LUIGI VASQUEZ, coach, Harlem RBI: I think, if it wasn't for RBI, I wouldn't be the person I am today at all. Probably would be in the streets doing negative things. And I thank RBI for every single thing they did for me during my whole life.
JOHN TULENKO: Support also comes from teammates. Most teenagers stay in the program and play on the same team for six years.
Developing a sense of "team"
RICHARD BERLIN: The ultimate power of our work for kids is this concept of teams, that everybody here is on a team. Everybody here has a group of peers and a group of adults that have their back, that are pushing them to do better, that need them, that rely on them for their own success.
JOHN TULENKO: Robert, how long have you been with your teammates?
ROBERT SALTARES, coach, Harlem RBI: Since the age of 13. Actually, Luigi was one of my teammates. Ever since the age of 13, Luigi has been playing second base, and I have been behind the plate. And we -- it's like a family now.
JOHN TULENKO: Do you look out for each other?
ROBERT SALTARES: All the time.
GIRL: Yes. Yes.
BOYS AND GIRLS: Oh!
GIRL: Nobody wins.
JOHN TULENKO: College students look after kids, too, as coaches. You're all coaches. What brought you back?
JUSTINA SHARROCK, coach, Harlem RBI: I want to give the -- I want to inspire. I don't want them to become a product of their environment. Like, they might grow up around things that aren't so positive. I want them to know you can come up out of that, because that's what I did. And I want to give that back.
RICHARD BERLIN: Nothing is more powerful than hearing about working hard from a kid who has made it through high school, gone off to college, and is sitting there telling this 10-year-old, do it this way, because, if you do it this way, these good things will happen.
JOHN TULENKO: In a city where nearly half of all high school students fail to graduate, 90 percent of RBI's teenagers get into college. It doesn't come easy, but that's part of what they're learning here, too. It costs Harlem RBI about $2,000 per child to run its summer camp. Funding comes from government and private grants. Major League Baseball helps administer RBI affiliates in more than 90 cities, but the Harlem program is the only one that focuses on education. This summer marks its 18th anniversary.