A north Tulsa youth-enrichment program has been recognized for its efficiency in helping keep vulnerable children learning and healthy during the critical summer months.
The National Summer Learning Association has selected Tulsa YouthWorks as one of eight finalists in the organization’s annual Summer Learning Awards. Four winners will be announced later this month, with each receiving $10,000.
YouthWorks, a nonprofit seeking to empower more than 200 at-risk north Tulsa children who are failing or struggling in reading and math, would be the first Tulsa program to win the award in its approximately 15-year history.
Chris Beach, executive director of YouthWorks, said the $10,000 prize would be a huge help in expanding the program’s reach and effectiveness.
But even if YouthWorks doesn’t win, Beach said he’s still motivated by the finalist nod. He believes that recognition shows his team is following the right path in achieving its goal of making a lasting impact in the community.
“To us, it’s very encouraging,” he said. “They told us they like our model where children serve as leaders. They like the hands-on learning opportunities. We believe that’s the best way for a child to learn, to let them be leaders and learn what it’s like to lead and to take responsibility.”
The program focuses on kids in north Tulsa who can’t afford to attend other camps and often are dismissed as troublemakers.
“We have a lot of love and a lot of grace for kids who are really struggling, and we do everything we can to help them succeed,” Beach said.
Although YouthWorks offers camps during all extended school breaks, the 10-week summer camp is by far its biggest draw and serves about 125 children every year.
With the program’s hands-on approach, the kids get to learn how to run their own pizza business through the YouthWorks Pizza Factory and how to take care of animals at the YouthWorks Ranch. A special basketball court designed by the Oklahoma City Thunder provides a fun way to get fit.
They also get to work on their reading and math skills. Beach said the children improve their reading by an average of 1.48 grade levels during the camp.
Beach has asked a lot of second-graders and third-graders in north Tulsa over the years what they want to be when they grow up. They tell him they want to be lawyers and doctors and police officers.
When he asks that question to kids in middle and high school, many express that they’ve already given up on those dreams. They consider dropping out and resorting to a life of mowing lawns or washing dishes to survive.
That mentality change, Beach said, often starts with failing third-grade reading. He said the passing reading percentile of third-graders in the north Tulsa community is 33%.
The problem is exacerbated by a lack of a solid support system.
“Every child needs someone to believe in them,” he said. “Every child needs somebody who says, ‘You can do it.’ Everybody has their doubters out there. So if a child gets a whole bunch of people who will love on them and encourage them, then they can accomplish everything that they’re made to accomplish.”
YouthWorks was chosen from hundreds of applicants to be a finalist for the award for its multitude of innovative learning opportunities, said Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association. He called the ongoing selection process rigorous, with the winners not being decided until the association visits each finalist in person.
Dworkin said the goal of the Summer Learning Awards is to highlight programs that play a critical role in bridging the academic gap between spring and fall. Children often lose their reading and math skills over the summer, he said, and that loss is more keenly felt among kids from low-income communities.
“Basically, we are the biggest champion across the country for free and low-cost summer learning programs for kids,” Dworkin said. “And we’re trying to put a spotlight on the best examples and the best model programs and groups that are working with kids in creative and effective ways.”
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