NYC’s Summer Rising program rejected 45,000 applicants, launching scramble for child care

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Roughly 45,000 children have been shut out of New York City’s free, popular summer program, education department officials said this week. 

The program, which runs between six to seven weeks for most students, provides academics during the morning and enrichment activities in the afternoon for children in grades K-8 across the five boroughs from July to August.

Like last year, a total of 110,000 seats were available this year, with a portion held open for students mandated to attend summer school. During a City Council hearing this week, the education department’s Chief Operating Officer Emma Vadehra said there are 94,000 seats available for 139,000 applicants. Officials initially reported that 30,000 families did not receive spots.

It’s possible that some of the rejected applicants will have to attend the program anyway for academic reasons and will get a seat that has been set aside. Still, many of those families, who were notified earlier this month that they didn’t get seats, are likely scrambling to find summer programs for their children before the school year ends on June 27.  

“The basic challenge is that demand outstripped supply pretty dramatically,” Vadehra told City Council members. “And so there’s different ways that could have looked, but we just didn’t have enough seats in the program for the number of kids and families that really wanted this program despite the fact that it is the largest summer program we’ve had – and the largest in the country.”

Two of those unsuccessful applicants were Alejandra Perez’s 5- and 10-year-old sons, who should have been prioritized for seats because they attend an after-school program run by the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development, through a community-based organization that helps oversee Summer Rising. 

Perez, a lifelong East Harlemite, paid $2,250 last summer for six weeks of child care, which she can barely afford again this year. 

But in mid-May, about three weeks after applying, she was informed via email that her sons, who attend a charter school in East Harlem, didn’t get in. While she can probably rely on a relative to care for her older son, she is scrambling to find free or affordable care for her 5-year-old.

“I am still trying to find a program,” she said. “By the act of God, maybe I’ll get an email like, ‘Hey, we found you a spot!’”

Some children with priority did not get spots

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio established the program two years ago with federal relief dollars as the city clawed its way out of the pandemic, attempting to provide children with a bridge back to school after remote learning. It differs from summer programs in the past: It’s open to any child, including those in charters and private school, not just those who are mandated to attend summer school. 

The program, though bumpy with its initial roll out, has grown in popularity. This year, city officials made a couple of key changes to the application process. While still open to the same number of children, applicants were allowed to rank choices for Summer Rising sites instead of the first come, first served process last year. Additionally, students who attend after-school programs subsidized through the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development, or DYCD, were supposed to be prioritized for seats, like Perez’s children. That’s in addition to students living in temporary housing, children in foster care, and children with disabilities who must have services year round. 

Perez had ranked three Summer Rising sites close to her home. Perez said the application did not ask if her kids were in an after-school program. According to an education department spokesperson, Perez’s children didn’t receive a spot because there was likely a lot of demand at the sites she chose.

When she asked someone from the after-school program why her sons didn’t get into Summer Rising, they didn’t have an answer — except that none of the kids in the program who applied got in, Perez said. (A representative for their SCAN-Harbor Beacon after-school program did not return a request for comment.)

During the City Council hearing this week, officials said that just over half of the seats that have been filled went to students in the priority groups. Of those, 29,000 spots went to students who were in DYCD-run after-school programs, 16,000 went to students in temporary housing, 3,000 seats to children with 12-month individualized education programs, or IEPs, and another 1,000 to students in foster care. (Last year, Summer Rising had 12,000 students in temporary housing, 2,700 students with 12-month IEPs and 1,000 students in foster care.)

New seats won’t be added, but filled seats might open up

Vadehra said they’re not planning to add seats — emphasizing that this program is being supported by federal dollars that are set to run out next year — and there is no wait list for seats. But they are expecting an unspecified number of spots to open up, either because fewer students will be mandated to attend summer school or because families may decline a seat they’ve been offered. The education department is working with DYCD to figure out how to make families aware of empty seats in June and how they can apply for those, she said.

In the meantime, parents are scrambling to find options that seem few and far between — and too pricey. 

Perez’s rejection email from the education department included a link to other DYCD programs that might be available. She said she has called every local community-based organization near her home for some type of programming with no luck. 

“At this point I am just emailing everyone,” she said. 

Tia Jackson, who lives in Central Harlem, knew she would potentially need to scramble for summer options if her son didn’t get into Summer Rising, so she signed him up for a YMCA program near her home. Her planning came in handy: Her son did not get a Summer Rising seat. 

While he doesn’t fall into any of the priority groups, her son, who is autistic, also has an individualized education program. The YMCA program has staff who can assist him if he needs extra support, Jackson said. She will be reimbursed up to $2,250 for summer care expenses through the state’s Office of People With Developmental Disabilities, but that only ensures four weeks of summer programming for her son. He’s planning to visit his aunt in Florida for one week, and she will pay out of pocket for child care for an additional week. 

She feels thankful for having a “Plan A and Plan B.”

“I feel like the way they rolled out the program to start was very late, and it wasn’t the best for working parents, typically because when you think about summer camps most applications for summer camp start in February and March,” she said. “We didn’t get the Summer Rising notification until April.” 

The department spokesperson did not explain the timing of the Summer Rising application, except to say there are several factors that impact the timeline.

Both of Loretta Bencivengo’s children got into Summer Rising last year, likely because she submitted her application as soon as it opened during the previous first come, first served model. This year they didn’t get spots, said Bencivengo, who lives in Windsor Terrace. 

The most affordable alternate option she’s found so far is with the local YMCA for a $5,000, eight-week program for both of her children, which she equated to two months of rent. Many places don’t have space this late in the spring, she said. 

“All those slots are filled up in January and February,” she said of private programs. “If that’s the case, why not put this application out in November and December so that you can open an appropriate amount of slots?”

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City public schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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