Submitted by By HEATHER SKAGGS &REBECCA WALDEN.
Bluff Park’s Children’s Fresh Air FarmBluff Park’s Children’s Fresh Air Farm giveslife experience, education to Birmingham children.
Students at Birmingham City’s Hayes Elementary School will go back to school in August reading better than ever, and a summer camp in Bluff Park is to credit.
“We are sending the children back to school each fall with the tools they need to succeed,” said Fresh Air Farm Director Gini Williams. “Along those lines, at graduation, we give each child a new uniform, their school supplies for the year, and a voucher for new shoes.”
Students are invited back to the farm’s Summer Learning Program for three subsequent summers following their second grade year.
“After over 80 years of providing underserved children with an overnight camp experience, our church asked community leaders to express to us their current needs,” Williams said. “They answered that children still need to have a broadening ‘out of their neighborhood’ experience in the summer, and they desperately need help with their education. Having studied the devastating effect that summer learning loss is having on at-risk populations, Independent Presbyterian Church decided to focus on an academic summer learning program.”
Now in its 90th year, Children’s Fresh Air Farm, located at 501 Park Avenue, provides a faith-based camping experience to youth from all over the Magic City.
The idea for the farm originated with Henry Edmonds, founding pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church. What began as a 10-week program based out of Shades Cahaba High School accommodating 30 campers has since become a comprehensive outreach program for underserved children across Greater Birmingham. Today, the camp hosts children ages eight to 12 for a variety of events kicking off during Spring Break and running through summer, including both a Vacation Bible School and a six-week Summer Learning Program.
The cornerstone of the Summer Learning Program is STAIR, which stands for Start the Adventure in Reading. It consists of targeted study Monday through Thursday with classes in the morning and enrichment classes like music or science outreach by the McWane Science Center in the afternoon. On Fridays, the children participate in field trips to places like the Birmingham Zoo, Southern Museum of Flight, Birmingham Eco Center and Railroad Park.
More than just a clever acronym and a few field trips, the Summer Learning Program is backed by curricula developed in collaboration with Samford University. Quality counts, and results are measured.
“We are up against the potential loss of two to three months of grade level skills,” Williams said. “We focus on reading and math, taught by certified teachers using proven curriculum, and use national standardized tests to measure our results. Each year the children have made one to two months of progress in academic skills, as opposed to the skills they would have lost without the Summer Learning Program.”
Anecdotal feedback further supports the program’s impact. In the words of one third grade tutor serving Birmingham City Schools: “I was immediately struck by the reading proficiency of the students who were assigned to me for reading intervention. I later realized that many of my students have participated in the programs initiated and implemented by Independent Presbyterian Church. The students are so very enthusiastic about attending the summer and weekend programs provided by IPC. They get excited telling about what their tutors have done for them and all the fun they have had. It is clear that IPC is truly making a positive impact on the reading skills and the lives of these students.”
In addition to the academic boost, participating campers receive school year essentials before they start off the new school year.
“Through year-over-year student participation, we believe we can meaningfully impact their education through our program,” Williams said. “And we work to feed these children in mind, body and soul.”
Thanks to private donations, the program to date has been free of charge, including meals, trans-portation, supplies, a swimming suit, field trips, and supplies. In 2013, Children’s Fresh Air Farm will charge a nominal fee.
“There are many needs in running a facility of this size and age,” she said. “One of the main needs is gardening; we have 101 garden plots that need care, in addition to 36 acres of privet.”
The Farm is also preparing for a playground rebuild, which will cost upwards of $40,000.
To learn more about Fresh Air Farm, contact Gini Williams at 822-0150 or 907-8888.