Finding the Best Summer Program for Your Child

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Episode 70 │ Finding the Best Summer Program for Your Child

Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023

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Show Notes

Brodrick Clarke

Choosing a summer program that is fun, educational and affordable is no easy task. Brodrick Clarke, VP of Programs at the National Summer Learning Association joined the show to help. He talks about the tools families can use to find high-quality summer programs and offers tips for finding a program that will be a good fit for your child.


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Helen Westmoreland: Welcome to today's episode. I'm Helen Westmoreland.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: And I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester, and we're your co-hosts. We've talked a lot, Helen, about the learning that happens in school, but today we're going to discover more about the learning that happens outside of school, especially during the summer.

Helen Westmoreland: It's so true Kisha. So as you know, my daughter is still not yet in kindergarten, so her learning still looks very year round and similar, but I am guessing Ellington has had some summer experiences, is that right?

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yes. My son is six and three quarters and he has done lots of camp experiences. He's done the nature camp, he's done soccer camp, he's done robotics, which he really liked last summer. And he's also done some programs with his martial arts academy that they have different themes every week, which he loves.

Helen Westmoreland: Ooh, that sounds fun. You go, mama. That's an extensive summer programming list.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yes. Yes. Gotta keep 'em busy, and learning.

Helen Westmoreland: Well, we are excited today to learn more about what high quality summer learning looks like and how we can ensure all families can have access to that array of programming. We are thrilled to welcome Brodrick Clarke, Vice President Programs and Systems Quality at the National Summer Learning Association, to the show today. Brodrick has extensive experience working with public school students primarily in out-of-school settings. He has recruited and trained hundreds of youth workers and volunteers. As a seasoned professional development trainer, Brodrick incorporates research and best practice with interactive simulations to engage his audience in dynamic learning. Welcome to the show, Brodrick.

Brodrick Clarke: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Helen Westmoreland: We are thrilled to have you here with us today. We like to start episodes off just learning a little bit more about our guests. So could you tell me a little bit more about yourself and what brought you to the National Summer Learning Association? What do you do there?

Brodrick Clarke: Absolutely, and so I'm a New York City product. Brooklyn, New York. So shout out to all the native New Yorkers that's in the house.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's where I was born. Yeah.

Brodrick Clarke: I went to college and I wanted to be a television producer. Honestly. I wanted to work cameras. And then one time while I was on campus, I was volunteering at an afterschool program. Of course, at the time I had no idea what after school was or what that actually meant, but I do know there was this little guy that, every time I went to the center, he just gravitated to me.

And yeah, it was about homework help and, learning, getting to know, and doing a little bit of mentorship. But I couldn't go there for a little while. And, and then when I went back. This young guy, when I walked into the room, he ran all the way across the room, knocked stuff over aw, grabbed onto my leg, literally wouldn't let go for about five minutes, even though I was like, you know, come on, come on. And he's like, still holding on. And it just sort of clicked in that, that I was fulfilling a need. That there was this space where I can serve and feel great about serving, providing some knowledge, information and resource and even just presence in the life of a child and to see how impactful that was in that moment.

Even not knowing what I was gonna do with my career, I thought I was gonna be in television production. But once I left the, the college experience. You know what happens six months after you leave college, they start knocking on the door for those student loan repayments. And so I had to figure something out. I couldn't find anything in television. And a friend of mine that worked at a nonprofit organization in the South Bronx called me up and said, you're good with kids, like kids always gravitate to you, like, why don't you come work for us? And it was a part-time position in the South Bronx.

My job was to talk to hustlers on the street corner and get 'em to connect to something more life-sustaining. And through that process you're able to, to reach some and, and some not so much. And I try to, be motivated by the ones I'm not able to reach and, leverage that as a yeah, more motivation to try to reach as many as I can.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's really powerful. All of those experiences, I had similar experiences, tutoring, and you realize that there's a world outside of finding the job, doing a career. And  presence is definitely important. I wanna talk a little bit about what you do at the National Summer Learning Association.

Brodrick Clarke: Absolutely. So, At NSLA, we're a capacity building organization. We're a convener. We bring together leaders in the summer learning and out of school time space to talk about what it means not only to provide access, because we know access is an issue. And we wanna make sure that there's equitable access. But the other key point in our terminology is high quality.

So it's not enough to just have a child in a program, if they're, if the program is not high quality, then we're not gonna move young people to the outcomes that we know, that they're capable of, right? And so, we talk to educators about how do you keep young people safe? What does safety look like, feel like, and sound like at your program? How do you support young people? How do you provide them opportunities to interact and truly engage at the top of the pyramid?. When we say engagement, we're talking beyond attendance. Engagement for us is young people having voice and choice autonomy, getting an opportunity to plan what they do, do that awesome stuff that they do. And then reflect on what they've done as a result. Which we know are skills that we need in, in life as we engage in our life work and, and our vocations, as we, go out and take care of ourselves and our families.

And so out-of-school time is a wonderful place where young people can practice those emerging social skills. And so we spend a lot of time working with practitioners directly to get them to rediscover and re-embrace and remind them of the promise that exists in the out-of-school time space and what their role is in that. And so while we don't provide direct services, we don't provide programming in the summertime. We do have a few demonstration projects because we like to put names and faces to our work.

We call them demonstration and model programs. So we do have a youth leadership institute that we did last summer for the first time. Oh, cool. We bought a hundred young people and families and staff to Washington, DC. They stayed at American University. We went through all kinds of leadership training and development. So the young people had their track and then the adults had their track.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Oh, that's awesome.

Brodrick Clarke: And then another parent facing piece that we have is about awareness. I'm still surprised with all the technological tools that we have today that folks still don't know. I didn't know that program was over there, or I didn't realize that this resource was in my community.

Helen Westmoreland: So how can parents find them?

Brodrick Clarke: We created what we call a Parent facing portal, just like a Google search engine. You can go and put your, zip code in and it will populate with all the programs and opportunities that are within, five miles of your address. Awesome. Yeah, which is wonderful to have that.

 We're also leveraging that platform as an opportunity to educate parents about what quality is. I know anecdotally, when you need that childcare over the summertime, sometimes parents don't necessarily do all of the research.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. I mean, sometimes it's just like, what week, what hours can I get the coverage?

Brodrick Clarke: Exactly. And working with parents to understand their own personal power and how much their voice matters and that's an important group to step up and recognize what quality is. It's beyond just, you know, you have the outlet covers on the, on the power sockets, right? We, we hope that it's basic safety. But beyond that, right, we were talking about what the vibe feels like in the program. Mm-hmm. Do the staff you know, provide clear opportunities for young people to plan and do that thing that they do?

Are the adults supporting them by participating alongside them? Right. So we don't just give kids stuff to do and then go stand on the side with our phones. We're in the trenches with them, we're at eye level with them. We work with practitioners to understand those pieces, but it's equally as valuable to make sure that parents understand that not only this is what quality looks like, feels like and sounds like, but this is what you deserve. Every parent deserves to have a high quality summer learning experience. Every child deserves to be met by an adult practitioner that has the knowledge and the skills and the competencies, and I would even say the disposition to serve young people.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: Yeah, absolutely.

Helen Westmoreland: I want to pick up on that Brodrick because I think you mentioned this, that so much of the work you do at NSLA is really about equitable access and that not all families do have that same access to high quality programming, is an assumption I would make. I'd love to hear from you a little bit about that landscape. Like are there summer learning programming deserts?

Brodrick Clarke: It's a great question and I'll tell you that there's really nobody that I've seen who's able to answer that question scientifically. It's actually one of the things that we're aspiring to and going to invest in. Which is how many young people are actually in programs, in the summertime, how many are not? How many more need it? How many more want it? But you can dig around for ages and that, that, that data is just not available. And so we're gonna leverage that as a clear opportunity to put our money where our mouth is and invest. In a thermometer to know also to make sure that we're not double and triple counting kids because we know that that takes place. At the same time too, if you look at that final number that folks talk about with respect to kids involved in programs, And you really peel that back a little bit. Well one child is being served by the Boys and Girls Club and then goes to the Y and then, and then from the Y goes over here, and of course they're not differentiating between, those organizations. It's just like, I need to go to my afterschool. And so we as a field in a sector can be a lot more scientific and, you know, intentional around figuring out systems and ways to collect that data.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. Yeah. Very good point. Thank you.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: I think the other thing that parents are worried about is they want their child to have a well-rounded experience during the summer. But there's a real COVID learning loss that has happened. How can summer programs play a role to alleviate those losses?

Brodrick Clarke: So there's a lot of data and research out there that shows that when a young person is engaged in a high quality summer learning and out-of-school time experience, that there's direct connection to their academic achievement. Out of school time is a place where we can explore all different kinds of concepts in a variety of different ways that are non-traditional. A really high functioning summer learning program is gonna move young people and explore academic concepts in a way that's interesting, creative. Mm-hmm, relevant that is driven by youth interest. and necessitates their, their involvement. It's about creation. It's about connection. It's about interconnectedness. It's about creating opportunities where young people get to participate in interdependent groups. How many of us adults work with people that, seem to have missed that lesson.

Helen Westmoreland: They didn’t have a good summer camp.

Kisha DeSandies Lester: That's right.

Brodrick Clarke: Exactly. And I believe that you can use and leverage anything to teach anything and that if you look at every single experience and if you're intentional about it, you can identify the science in it. You can identify the mathematics in it. You can see the literacy in and about it. And where the magic happens is you have a staff person that's their superpower, right? Mm-hmm. I'm gonna create this experience and I know that I have academic ends embedded in this experience, but the young people don't need to know that up upfront. They experience it and at the end you're like, did you realize that you all just, talked about drag and, and airplanes and weight and scale and, and all of that. And so, we continue to advocate with educators like, look, you're not the day school teacher out of school time and summer learning is not day school.

Now let's pause for a moment and celebrate the day school folks. Those folks do amazing work. Yeah, they do amazing work on behalf of our children and families, but out of school time is not that space. There are things that go on in the day school that out of school time could certainly appreciate and benefit from and should incorporate into their craft, but also vice versa. There are things that we do in the out-of-school time space that if you look at the best teachers, the most dynamic teachers, they're essentially doing all that we do in the out-of-school time space. It reminds me of that viral video where the brother was standing outside the classroom door and, you know, gives every single child an individual handshake.

Oh, well, that's not, that's not in his contract to do that. Right? But just look at the eyes and the minds of those young people. You see the energy passing between them. And that's what's going to, you know, strengthen that relationship, that individual relationship with each child. Something as simple as a creative handshake. And so mm-hmm. You know, we just continued that, that, that's the magic, make the magic happen. Teach the mathematical concepts, but just don't do it in a traditional way. 

Kisha DeSandies Lester: You're inspiring me because I do look at the road ahead of me. And I have two children and I do want my children to have a fulfilling, well-rounded experience. And so, one thing that I recommend that I did a few weeks ago is my son is quite dramatic, people at PTA probably wonder where he gets that from me. But I found an opportunity where he could do a preview to a summer program experience, and it was an acting class, and he got to pick and choose which ones he wanted to preview. And so he previewed two of 'em and he loved them, and they have like a kid's play that we're gonna take him to this weekend. But that's something that I'm learning, try it out, see if they're interested, it's free. It can make decisions.

Brodrick Clarke: Totally, totally. Which is, you know, it's one of those things. I know that in the, in the world of out of school time and nonprofits, we tend to focus on the, the most vulnerable youth and, and you know, rightfully so. but they're also vulnerable youth, I was, I was in that vulnerable category, right? You didn't have so much that you can afford all these things, but you didn't have so little to qualify for some things. So you're left in that little bit of limbo. So, as we continue to provide opportunities for our most vulnerable young people, I would just encourage us not to forget about those young people that are right there on the edge.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. One way to address families who can't afford all this private programming, many cities like I get every quarter this awesome, thick book from Alexandria Parks and Rec with all the different programs. But it is a lot to manage. So I'm curious from your perspective, working with so many different municipalities and organizations in this space, are there best practices for helping parents really know locally what is available and how to navigate that? Because it is a lot to take in so much and a lot to figure out. What are you seeing?

Brodrick Clarke: Totally. So, every program is not created equal from a quality standpoint.  I think it begins with understanding what quality is, what it looks like, feels like, and sounds like. All programs should keep young people safe, provide a supportive environment, give them multiple opportunities to interact and engage. With respect to what parents can do, I would say know your program personnel, get to know them at the site. Identify where the program is, call and speak to the program director. I'm speaking from someone who has run a program before, like, I actually would've welcomed this. Don't just take the enrollment form and immediately enroll your child. Come and see what the program is like. Maybe come and stay for the first half hour in the program.

Bring your child one day for a visit. Have them navigate the space a little bit and see how they feel about it. Do that kind of research. Just don't randomly drop your child in any program. I hesitated a little bit because I feel the tension of need, like you need the childcare, I need an opening, I need that space. But to be quite honest with you sometimes, it might fulfill that immediate need, but, it's not worth it in the end if it's not a quality experience for that child.

Brodrick Clarke: I'll also share too that for parents to know that just because a program has an accreditation SEAL and accreditation is important. Accreditation is really about the baseline of student safety. But it doesn't necessarily mean it's a quality program. You can have a program that is accredited and it has that seal, accredited by the National Parks and Recreation Association, but that does not necessarily equate to a quality experience. And the only way you can assess that is being in the space and feeling the vibe.

Helen Westmoreland: You have shared so much great information with us today. I feel like I'm definitely walking away with a better understanding of like you said, not just fill in the slot even though it's urgent to fill. Of all the things you've shared, Brodrick, what is something you really want parents to walk away from today's conversation with?

Brodrick Clarke: That young people will thrive when they feel safe and they're supported and given opportunities to interact and engage. And that's in programming, that's in a day school. That's even at home. Like one of the things I used to do, you know, I speak for a living, so I talk all the time. When I come home in the evening, the last thing I want to do is talk, right?

But then my son knocks on the door with a question, an open-ended, wonderful question. I have to stop and engage, because if I do what I felt like in that moment, right? Shut it down, all it takes is that one time to shut the conversation down with that child and they may not come back and ask again. And so as much as we advocate for these positive youth development practices and principles, they're great for programming. The best out of school time program is the living room and dining room and, you know, backyard and, and you know, the, the dinner table. That's the best out of school time program. So practice those, those skills and techniques at home because young people, when they are met with positive youth development, they will respond and they will thrive.

The other piece I want parents to understand too is like, let's not forget about our older youth. Sometimes when they get past middle school and they can vote with their feet and, and move around and, and that kind of thing. There's less opportunity for older youth. And so let's not forget that although you don't need the childcare anymore necessarily for them, that they still need a high quality summer learning experience, the same way our youngest kiddos do.

Helen Westmoreland: Awesome. If parents wanna learn more about you and NSLA, any resources or websites or social media handles you wanna give a shout out to?

Brodrick Clarke: Yeah, so I'll keep it simple there. If you go to there’s some wonderful information about what quality is. It’s very practitioner focused but it’s a lot of great reading there. And you also might find some opportunities. So if there’s any parents there that has a high school age young person that is interested in having the young person attend our National Youth Leadership Institute. We only bring a hundred to Washington DC but I'm gonna go ahead, Uhhuh , and put it out there on this call to your constituents and say, if you're really interested in that, check us out on the website and, and give me a call.

And then jump to if you're interested in a program or looking for a program. We vetted those programs. There are literally thousands, I think 15 to 30,000 programs that are in that database that are all vetted. So, if you find something there, it's gonna beo a high quality experience for your young person.

Helen Westmoreland: Awesome. Well, thank you again for joining us.

Brodrick Clarke: Absolutely. It was an honor and a privilege. I appreciate, appreciate the opportunity. No doubt.

Helen Westmoreland: Thank you. And to our listeners, thank you for joining us as well. Please remember to visit our Apple Podcast page and leave a rating and review. Let us know what topics you're interested in hearing more about. And as always, for more resources, including the ones that Brodrick just shared, please check out Thanks, and join us next time.