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How one summer camp hopes to answer Indiana’s growing literacy crisis

First grader Tamia Maull plays a game with a friend before class June 24 during ASPIRE INDY's camp at Charles Warren Fairbanks School 105. (Provided Photo/Alayna Wilkening/Mirror Indy)

(MIRROR INDY) — Every morning, ASPIRE INDY’s I RISE Summer Enrichment camp starts with an assembly.

Students in grades one through nine line up across the Charles Warren Fairbanks School 105 gymnasium floor, and program leaders make their daily announcements. This Monday in late June brings a reminder for students to be on their best behavior for class and camp photos.

Then a rising freshman, Elijah Hankins, takes the floor and reads from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes spring high,
Still I rise.

The poem, for which the camp is named, was chosen with purpose, and its message is incorporated throughout the five-week program. Its leaders organize transportation, free meals and gift cards for campers so all kids can experience summer camp for free.

It’s made possible by The Mind Trust’s Indy Summer Learning Labs program, which pays licensed teachers to work with students at more than 50 summer camp sites across Marion County. The program, which bolsters grassroots camps with high quality reading and math curriculum, is showing results.

Program leaders say students who participated in the learning labs in 2021 and 2022 saw double-digit learning gains in reading and math as measured by tests taken at the beginning and end of the summer. Last summer, students saw a 23 percentage point increase in English scores and a 22 percentage point increase in math scores.

Now the program is reporting record enrollment this summer. More than 5,300 students in Marion County are signed up for free or low-cost camps supported by Indiana’s Student Learning Recovery grant

State officials appear to be so encouraged by the program that’s shown double-digit learning gains that they’ve invested this year in expanding it to four other cities. An additional 3,000 students are now registered for programs in Gary, Salem, South Bend and Wabash.

“I come back because I know the learning gap is so strong still,” said Jill Alexander, an ASPIRE INDY teacher who has worked with Indy Summer Learning Labs from its start. “This program is working for that fill of the gap.”

‘The piece that was always missing’

The Indy Summer Learning Labs program launched in 2021 as a response to learning gaps that emerged during the pandemic. But program leaders quickly recognized the model to be a tool in combating educational gaps that existed long before the pandemic.

In Indiana, nearly 1 in 5 students failed to pass the state’s standardized third grade reading exam last year, following a trend that education officials say has only grown worse over the last decade. State legislators responded this year by passing a law requiring some students to repeat the third grade if unable to pass the exam. 

The Indy Summer Learning Lab approach provides licensed teachers, training and curricular materials to existing camps of all sizes. Some start small, like ASPIRE INDY. Others, like the Boys & Girls Clubs, have a large footprint already.

Students sit for a morning meeting June 24 during ASPIRE INDY’s camp at Charles Warren Fairbanks School 105. The free summer camp serves students in first through ninth grade. Credit: Alayna Wilkening/Mirror Indy

For Marvin Reynolds, who started his ASPIRE INDY summer camp years ago as a small church-based program, the partnership has helped boost campers’ educational experience. He first turned to Indy Summer Learning Labs three years ago and has returned every summer since.

Reynolds said he previously built worksheets into kids’ camp schedules, but he couldn’t afford to bring in licensed teachers without The Mind Trust’s help. Before the partnership, the grassroots summer camp served about 40 kids. It grew into three different locations last year, leading Reynolds to strike a deal with Indianapolis Public Schools to house ASPIRE INDY’s more than 350 campers this year in School 105 on the far east side.

“It gave us the piece that was always missing,” Reynolds said. “We’ve been able to expand the number of kids that we can serve for free, and now they get the high quality educational enrichment.”

Preparing for the school year

Audrey Nelson-Tandy’s ASPIRE Indy room feels like any third grade class you’d walk into during the school year. 

Third grade student Zion King answers reading questions June 24 during ASPIRE INDY’s camp at Charles Warren Fairbanks School 105. Credit: Alayna Wilkening/Mirror Indy

During a morning writing activity, the teacher uses worksheets provided by Lavinia Group, a Mind Trust partner that provides literacy and phonics curriculum for all Indy Summer Learning Lab sites.

Nelson-Tandy asks her students to respond to a question in writing with three supporting ideas. Then the students read their paragraphs aloud to identify the supporting reasons in one another’s writing. In today’s activity, rising third grader Michaiah Beverly answers the question “What is your favorite time of the school day?” with “Recess!” 

Why? Because she can dance, get water and go to the playground.

It’s a lesson designed to prepare students for the tests they might take when they return to school.

“When you have IREAD and ILEARN, you are expected to write,” Nelson-Tandy tells her students. “You’ve gotta put your thoughts together on paper. It’s not putting it together with one word here or a word there. They want to see your writing structure.”

Students are aware of the academic goals set for them. Over breakfast in the School 105 cafeteria, rising fifth grader Eboni Hall told Mirror Indy she wants to be just like her sister and make the honor roll. That’s why, she said, she’s most excited for “making my grades go higher” at camp. 

That and, of course, swimming.

Expanding a model that works

While the camps hit math and reading instruction heavily in the morning, fun activities are prepared for students in the afternoon to keep them excited and coming back. ASPIRE INDY offers Spanish, drama, music and even a barbering class for young men.

Students also take field trips meant to teach them about more than just words and numbers but how to be understanding of others. During the first week of camp, family engagement coordinator Agnes Shelton arranged visits to Indy’s Global Village on the west side. Camp leaders say they also hope to take kids horseback riding in Brown County.

Shelton said it’s important not only to appeal to students but to bring their families into the camp experience, as well. She told Mirror Indy she’s planning events such as Doughnuts with Dads and Groovin’ with the Grans to connect families with curriculum, summer camp activities and community resources. 

“They have to be proactively involved,” Shelton said. “Why not talk to your kid? Have a conversation and maybe share some of the things that you did when you were their age?”

Agnes Shelton, family engagement coordinator, makes an announcement at breakfast June 24 during ASPIRE INDY’s camp at Charles Warren Fairbanks School 105. Credit: Alayna Wilkening/Mirror Indy

Reynolds, the ASPIRE INDY site director, knows the importance of an accessible summer camp that brings family into the experience. 

Raised by his aunt and uncle, Reynold’s memories of summer revolve around playing in his family’s backyard. He always wanted to go to camp, but his family didn’t have the money.

That’s why he founded ASPIRE INDY all those years ago on the promise of making summer camp free and easy to attend. It’s also why he reminds his students every day of “Still I Rise.”

“We’re dealing with kids that they call ‘at risk,’” Reynolds said. “Society … they’ll say they’re just a product of their environment, and that’s why I’ve always liked that poem by Maya Angelou. It’s that no matter what your circumstances are, still you can rise.”

Mirror Indy reporter Carley Lanich covers early childhood and K-12 education. Contact her at or follow her on X @carleylanich.