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Nonprofit stepping up for education during the COVID crisis

Summit54 helping kids with academics when they need it most

When COVID-19 forced Summit54 to cancel its signature program for elementary school students in the lower Roaring Fork Valley last summer, the local nonprofit could have gone on hiatus. Instead, it doubled down on its efforts.

Summit54 created new, free programs to provide tutoring for elementary school students at a time when extra attention is needed more than ever. While the pandemic has made it difficult for schools to regularly hold classes in-person, Summit54 has made sure students could still meet with teachers in small groups.

“Kids craved interaction. Teachers missed their kids,” said Terri Caine, Summit54’s executive director. Terri and her husband, Tony, co-founded the organization to boost educational opportunities for youth. Tony climbed Colorado’s 54 tallest peaks, all over 14,000 feet in elevation, to raise awareness and funds for the nonprofit, thus its name.



For the eight years prior to 2020, the nonprofit had partnered with the Roaring Fork School District in a program called Summer Advantage. Each summer between 600 and 750 students in kindergarten through fourth-grade worked with teachers on skills designed to raise their achievement, improve their self-esteem and get prepared for the following school year.

The program reaches many of the students facing the biggest challenges in elementary schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. The demographics for 2019 showed 84% of the young scholars were Hispanic, 14% Caucasian, 1% Black and 1% other.




Of those who applied for Summer Advantage, 77% qualified for free or reduced-price meals.

Summer Advantage had to be scrapped one month before it was scheduled to start. It was too risky to have teachers and students meeting indoors. Nevertheless, Caine was determined not to let COVID-19 derail the effort.

She scrambled to establish the Summer Success program, where small groups met in regional parks for academic and life-enrichment activities. The program operated four days per week over five weeks in 23 regional parks. The program served about 220 students entering first- through fifth-grades.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this if teachers hadn’t stepped up,” Caine said.

Many teachers who work in the Roaring Fork School District are hired for the summer program.

Kids started their day with a health screen and a session designed by another local nonprofit, Focused Kids, to get them in a relaxed and recharged frame of mind that enhanced learning. Then they had 90 minutes of literacy followed by a nutritious snack and active outdoor play. Their day concluded with 60 minutes of math. The kids were sent home with a nutritious lunch.

The organization and the school district kept the momentum going into fall. Teachers and other educators were hired to provide tutoring in small groups, again meeting outside. The program was offered three days per week for seven weeks from 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. through Oct. 15. Only one session was canceled due to inclement weather. About 130 students took advantage of the program.

Caine said she and school district officials felt it was critical to continue to offer tutoring into the fall in a school year that was so disruptive. It has been well documented that online classes and isolation at home has been detrimental to many students.

“I believe the Roaring Fork School District did a much better job than many districts getting kids back in class rooms quickly. Therefore, I hope potential learning losses among the kids Summit54 works with will not be as great as elsewhere around the country,” Caine said. “Without access to standardized test scores, I don’t know the impact of last spring’s abrupt schools closures and move to online learning combined with this fall’s online school start. I think it is fair to assume there were negative impacts for many children. We hope the work that Summit54 is doing, combined with the tireless efforts of teachers in the Roaring Fork School District, are together helping to overcome any setbacks caused by the pandemic.”

Now, Summit54 is topping off the effort with tutoring through seven weeks this winter. Tutoring for elementary students is being offered in small groups at schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs or online. Students in small groups meet for one hour immediately after school. Those studying online participate in sessions in late afternoon and weekends.

Most students participate two times per week while teachers tutor between two and five days per week.

There are 236 kids participating online and 62 in person.

Caine said the generosity of the nonprofit’s supporters allowed it to keep offering the programs. It relied primarily on long-term donors, who she said “have been amazing.”

“We have never charged for any of our programs,” she said.

While existing donors have carried the load for Summit54, it needs additional contributors to keep its programs going. The lost time in classrooms means additional programs will be needed to make up for the losses, potentially for several years, Caine said.

Summer Advantage has been cleared for indoors at school buildings in summer 2021.

“We will accept as many students as sign up,” Caine said. “We are ready and our partners are ready.”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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