Ronald Blan, 12, shows the roller coaster he designed in robotics class at Adams County Camp.

The contraption Ronald Blan designed and was proudly displaying seemed more ferris wheel than roller coaster – but when the designer is a 12-year-old from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, such quibbles seem insignificant.

The point is, the 2-foot tall kinetic structure, set up in a classroom at Scott Carpenter Middle School in unincorporated Adams County, works.

“I’ve learned how to build a structure and make it spin,” said Blan. “I’ve had a lot of fun. I like technology. And I like roller coasters.”

Elsewhere in the school, youngsters were dabbling in computer technology to create a podcast. Others were working on their “downward-facing dog” stretch in yoga class. And others were preparing for that greatest of all childhood summertime joys, a trip to Water World.

Fighting summer learning loss

Adams County Camp is summer camp, with a twist. It’s all fun, yes, but camp organizers believe that what happens here this summer will impact these children and this community in profound ways for years to come.

Studies indicate that about two-thirds of the “achievement gap” between disadvantaged ninth-graders and their more financially well-off classmates can be explained by what happens – or fails to happen – over summer during their elementary school years.

First-graders at Adams County Camp sing a song while they prepare to go swimming.

Educators call this “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.”

“Research shows that poor kids may outlearn rich kids during the school year,” said Beverly Kingston, director of the Adams County Youth Initiative, which sponsors the camp. “But during the summer, it disappears.”

Now in its second year, the six-week Adams County Camp is serving 550 disadvantaged children in grades one through eight at three school-based locations.

Funded in part with a five-year, $8 million federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant, the camp is a collaboration among three Adams County school districts, the Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District, the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and Growing Home, a local care provider for the homeless.

Cost of camp minimal for families

The cost to campers is minimal: $15, viewed as a “commitment fee” after some of the campers in last year’s smaller but free pilot program attended only sporadically.

For that small investment, campers get academic enrichment activities and adventure outings unlike anything they’re likely to experience at home. Actual cost to run the camp is approximately $530 per camper.

Campers stretch as they learn yoga poses at Adams County Camp.

Youth program providers such as Mad Science, Kids Tek and Colorado Fusion Soccer Club bring their programs to the camp sites: Westminster School District’s Carpenter and Shaw Heights middle schools, and Adams City Middle School in Commerce City.

Because the camps are located at schools with summer feeding programs, free breakfast and lunch is available to all campers and most take advantage of that perk.

Counselors, mostly college students, supervise, mentor and lead activities in the four areas the camp emphasizes: sports, arts, technology and service.

Field trips to the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, Colorado School of Mines, the Denver Zoo, Adventure Golf and a Colorado Rockies game round out the program.

“A lot of our kids never get more than four blocks away from home,” said Kingston.

Of the 550 campers this year, 78 percent are minority and 77 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a typical measurement of poverty. Half the campers come from homes where their parents have a high school diploma or less.

Impact seen from first year

Last year, in its first year, the camp served some 185 children at Carpenter Middle School. The campers came from 26 different Adams County schools. While school officials did not evaluate campers’ later test scores, other measures seem to indicate the camp had a positive impact.

To learn more

Visit the Adams County Youth Initiative’s online library of research materials on best practices for at-risk youth.

See the 2009 Adams County Student Survey, administered by the Adams County Youth Initiative last fall to 27,770 students.

Read this brief, “Summer Can Set Kids on the Right – or Wrong – Course,” from the National Summer Learning Association.

“We definitely started school on a much more positive note last year,” said Carpenter Principal Kelly Williams. “It was a very successful school year. A lot of different factors went into that, but I know the camp had something to do with it. Discipline problems were cut in half last year.”

Indeed, juvenile crime reports within a 2-mile radius of the school were down dramatically last summer — from 1,178 during the summer of 2008 to 876 in the summer of 2009.

Kingston said this year, schools will look at student test scores to see what sort of impact the summer camp experiences has had on summer learning loss.

“This is a great gem that’s happening in Adams County,” said Becky Hoffman, manager of community initiatives for ACYI.

Hoffman hopes that publicizing the camp will lead to more community backing. The camp needs books. It needs more recreational equipment. It needs donated snacks for the children. It needs donors to sponsor individual campers.

Come fall, ACYI will organize an Adams Camp Community Board to begin oversight of the camp and increase community participation, she said.

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.