play-ballChildren chasing a ball during summer camp at the Red Bank Middle School last month. (Click to enlarge)

After two years of tweaking, an initiative to keep Red Bank kids active and mentally engaged hit its stride this summer, parents and officials say.

For parents, the Summer Enrichment and Recreational Program that ended August 14 had an added benefit: the price, which dropped this year to $75 per child, from up to $300 last year.

That included a half-day of classwork, recreation, field trips and, for some students, two meals a day. And thanks to the juggling of grant monies, Superintendent Laura Morana says the program, based at the middle school, had zero direct impact on taxpayers.

“It was a matter of being quite creative” with funds from several streams, including the federal No Child Left Behind effort and state 21st Century Community Service grants, she said.

summer-camp-32More scenes from the camp, which mixes light classwork, outdoor play and field trips. (Click to enlarge)

A collaborative effort by the district and the borough Parks & Rec department, the program aims to combine the strengths of both. It offered morning classes and afternoon outings to a waterpark in Keansburg; Liberty Science Center in Jersey City; a Blue Claws minor league baseball game in Lakewood; ice skating in Red Bank and Wall, and other destinations.

Older students could participate in ventures such as River Rangers canoe trips organized by the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association.

“We had the children until 11:30, and Then we handed them off to Bob,” Morana told redbankgreen in a recent interview, referring to Parks & Rec director Bob Evans.

Before 2008, the district offered a summer academic program for children who needed  remedial classes in order to move up to the next grade. Morana said she saw that there was an opportunity to ramp up the slate of classes for kids who hadn’t failed while linking up with some of the regular summer activities of the recreation department.

“Research shows that your child should be engaged in the summer,” she said. They shouldn’t be home watching television.”

In the program’s first year, parents were charged a tuition of $100 for the full-day program and $300 for the program including field trips. But that didn’t set well with Morana when it came time to plan for this year.

“In a way, you’re saying you can stay until 3 o’clock, or, if you’re able to pay, you can go on trips,” she said. “We really wanted equity.”

With the use of the grant funds, the tuition for the program was reduced to what Morana calls a “nomimal registration fee” of $75. After-hours child care was additional.

From last year’s enrollment of 225, this year’s shot up to 332. Part of that increase was a result of Red Bank parents opting not to re-enroll their children in a similar program at Rumson Country Day School and shifting them to the hometown program, Morana said.

But it also reflects increased economic pressure on parents who children might otherwise have gone away to camp or spent the summer at a beach club, said Evans.

In a way, the program functioned as a continuation of the school year. Students taking violin, viola and cello lessons during the school year, for example, were able to continue without significant interruption. Lesson plans for the K-thru-grade 4 students, while more relaxed than during the regular school year, put emphasis on critical thinking. For grades 5 through 8, the atmosphere was more relaxed, with a mix of offerings ranging from algebra to photography and art to robotics.

It also brought together Red Bank kids from a number of schools who might not normally cross paths. “It’s a great, diverse program,” said Evans.

The camp won praise from parents redbankgreen interviewed.

“It’s nice this summer to see them all together,” said Paula Collins, as she dropped off her 8-year-old son Tyler one morning for classes that included violin and rock vocals. “And all for $75. That’s amazing.”

“I’m very impressed,” said Milton Gray III, who had two children in the camp and helped chaperone some outings.  “My 11-year-old, Elijah, is taking pre-algebra and robotics, and he seems very pleased and happy.”

Gray said he hoped that the camp would help elevate participation in non-summer rec programs.

“Parents thought it was wonderful, because they recognized that a structured summer program was in the best interests of children,” Morana said.

Morana said administrators of the camp are now absorbing the lessons of the second summer, with an eye toward improving it next year.

One takeaway: they need to do a better job getting the word out in order to avoid the last-minute enrollment crush of  students in grades 5 through 8, which forced the elimination of an advanced robotics class.

More conceptually, Morana says she’s thinking of nudging the program to be more theme-based, with various curricula — vocal lessons, photography, robotics — culminating in a showcase event for all students and the community to participate in.