Keli Reese doesn’t like to hear complaints from her students.

Even at 7 a.m., the program director at 100 Black Men of Indianapolis’ Summer Academy expects students to be alert, awake, and excited.

She also urges them to be grateful.

“This is a privilege,” Reese said Wednesday to lines of students sitting cross-legged in the gymnasium of Theodore Potter School 74 on the near eastside.  “There are over 170 students who are waiting to get in that didn’t get in.”

Reese’s forceful speech was inspired by a “boom” of unexpected growth in the 30-year-old summer academy, a voluntary program that provides academic and social activities to students in preschool through grade 8 for a fee.

This year, 197 students will participate in the summer academy. But organizers turned down at least 170 more, placing them on a waitlist and forcing families to consider other summer learning programs. 

While all children are at risk of learning loss during the summer months, research suggests low-income students face additional obstacles that can accelerate learning loss, such as a lack of nutritional meals and safe, adult-supervised entertainment.  The Summer Academy has traditionally served low-income students in Indianapolis.

“At the outset of this program some three decades ago, the goal was to help minority students, and in particular those who reside in poverty,” executive director Ontay Johnson said. “We don’t want to see them regress. We want to see them improve.”

At the Summer Academy, students receive all three: quality instruction managed by licensed teachers, daily meals, and recreational activities that include everything from swimming to college visits and museum field trips.

And that’s a core reason why the academy is in such high demand: organizers say it’s one of the city’s few well-established, affordable summer learning programs.

“It’s really good that we’re growing to the degree that we are, but the challenge with growth is sometimes you can prepare for it, sometimes you can’t,” Johnson said.

Students are also coming from outside the communities typically served. Academy organizer Kendale Adams said an increasing number of students who enrolled this year came from Washington Township.

It also appears more students come from middle-income families that can more easily afford the $225 fee for the six-week program. Academy organizers said only three scholarships were awarded this year, while previous years saw as many as 13 awarded.  

The families say the summer academy offers a balance of academic growth and confidence-building.

“That consistency, week over week, with the same teacher and the same group of friends, just establishes a network,” said Tiffany Munsell, whose daughter is attending the academy for the second time.

Munsell said the academy empowers her daughter, instilling her with confidence and a sense of self-worth. The mother said that’s a challenge to replicate in traditional day camps that focus more on recreation or take place in a shorter time period.

That mission to strengthen students’ self-worth is evident in the classroom, too. JaCinda DeVance, a third grade instructor who has worked at the summer academy for 11 years, encouraged clear communication among her students on day one.

On the first day, her students took turns describing themselves while winding yarn through their fingers to monitor their time. As some of the eight- and nine-year-olds froze in fear or thought over a response, DeVance stood next to them calmly, asking them to explain their interests and personal histories to the room in depth.

That’s a level of freedom and autonomy that teachers don’t normally have, according to academy organizers. While Reese provides a framework to the teachers, they only have to meet general benchmarks, allowing the instructors to develop personal relationships with their students without typical academic pressures like standardized testing.

At the academy, students attend classes based on the grade they finished the previous year. This allows academy instructors to review and refine material learned at that grade level to solidify a student’s reading, math, cultural, and social knowledge.

Academy organizers said supporting families in poverty remains a priority. While the committee raised the program fee this year, they don’t want to increase the cost to families as part of their efforts to accommodate the sudden growth.

Instead, Adams said the team will rely on community partnerships. Though conversations remain in an early stage, both he and Johnson said it would be ideal to replicate the academy in multiple locations to serve a wider array of students as the population they serve expands.

But it can’t be a one-way street, they said — they need more support from community partners first. Each year, the 100 Black Men of Indianapolis face a $5,000 to $10,000 shortfall in funds needed to cover the program, Adams said.

More funding would give them the flexibility they need to open new educational opportunities, like they did this year in the program’s first African American history curriculum. It could also help the academy strengthen its partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools, which typically hosts the program at one of its buildings — or, organizers said, the academy could move to a dedicated community room.

And the more students who can find a home in the program, the better, if you’re asking Vera Beatty, 19. She said the academy helped her overcome her social anxiety, and believes in its mission so much that she came back to work with other high-school and college-aged youth.

Now that she’s a youth worker for the program, Beatty said the benefits to her students — who often struggle with behavioral issues and unrest at home, she said — are even more clear.

“Some of these kids have anger problems, and if they weren’t here, they’d be home with that anger playing video games or watching TV,” Beatty said.

Beatty, who attended Riverside High School, said she joined the academy as a student in the fourth grade. There, she said, one-on-one learning and relationship building with teachers and other students helped build her confidence and academic ability.

“When I came here, I felt like I was home,” Beatty said.