By Rachel Metz and Ryllie Danylko
District children and youth need ways to occupy and enrich their time now that the school year has ended. Unfortunately, there are not enough publicly funded summer program spaces for every family that wants one. According to the DC Policy Center, “the existing seat capacity in summer programs can serve 23 percent of students enrolled at elementary and secondary schools (as of 2022).” This count includes programs provided by community-based organizations, schools, and the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). DPR received millions of dollars more in local funding for 2023 and increased the seats offered by at least half (the exact number is unknown, given DPR’s limited and inconsistent data reporting). Despite that expansion, the District has no publicly funded seats for more than two of three public elementary and middle school students.
Wards 7 and 8 have tens of thousands fewer seats than there are elementary and middle school students who live there, far more than other wards. That’s despite the fact that existing summer seats are distributed roughly proportionate to where students live (except Ward 3, which has fewer publicly funded seats, and ward 2, which has more publicly funded seats). But the sheer numeric gap is bigger because so many more elementary and middle school students live in Wards 7 and 8 than in other Wards (20% and 24% of total enrollment, respectively). The gap persists whether you look at students overall or specifically at students in families with low incomes: Wards 7 and 8 have thousands fewer seats than there are students who live there, far more than the other wards.
Given those gaps, students in Wards 7 and 8 are far less likely to be able to get a seat in a summer program close to home.
The District has made strides in expanding the number of summer slots in recent years, but it’s clear there’s still more work to do. DC increased summer program capacity for elementary and middle school youth by nearly 12,000 seats between 2017 and 2022, according to a comparison of two DC Policy Center OST studies. Still, the latest 2022 study estimates that DC would need to create 53,500 additional summer program seats to reach the goal of serving every public elementary and middle school student.
District leaders should consider these recommendations to create more equitable access to summer programs:
- Mayor Bowser, the Learn24 office (which administers grants to community-based organizations running summer and afterschool programs), and DPR must create a plan to build and fund the expansion of affordable summer programs for DC youth and families, with priority for underserved communities.
- DPR must improve transparency by regularly sharing data and information about OST programs and participation in these programs. When they currently report data about their program capacity, it often is a headcount across sessions. If one child participates in three different summer sessions, they count that as three seats rather than one. Policymakers and families need more precise data to understand how many seats are available.
- The DC Council Committee on Recreation, Libraries and Youth Affairs must also exercise more vigorous oversight of DPR throughout the fiscal year and during next year’s performance oversight hearing, which is a crucial opportunity to hold the agency accountable for not only how it has served DC youth and families but also how it reports impact, outcomes, and other valuable data.