Chapter One: School's Out
It’s the last day of school at East Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh. Loud speakers announce the start of summer and the arrival of school buses to take kids home. Students trickle out of doorways, saying goodbye to each other and their teachers.
Thirty-six-year-old Ayeisha Owens picks up her daughter Kaiden and drives down the road to pick up her younger daughter Karisma from an elementary school nearby. She waits in the carpool line behind dozens of cars, feeling anxious. But she doesn’t let on to her daughters. She’s taken a half day off work to pick them up.
“Sorry I’m so late Mommy,” Karisma says, hopping into the backseat of her mom’s SUV, opposite her sister. “Ms. Garrett gave me a cupcake, then she had to sign my yearbook.”
“Wait, wait a second, Karisma,” her mom says. “You don’t even like cupcakes!”
Her older sister Kaiden, 12, clutches her pink and velour backpack and gives her mom the rundown on her yearbook.
“I have a best friends page, and a regular people page,” she says.
Kaiden has just finished her last day of the sixth grade – Karisma, the third grade.
From this car ride home until late August, they’ll pretty much be free of obligation. And that – the thought of her girls at home for days on end, without structured activity or learning opportunities – was unnerving to their mother.
“Only because I didn’t know what they would be doing,”Ayeisha said.
Some families have the means to send their kids to costly summer activities, like robotics camp or horseback riding lessons or weeks-long vacations. Ayeisha does not.
“As a mother, it’s disheartening, because it’s like I can’t even provide them certain aspects,” Ayeisha said. “I just feel like they could be doing more, or they’re missing out on something.”
A study from the U-S Department of Education found that kids from low-income families are thirty percent less likely to go to a day camp than their wealthier classmates. And that may have an impact on their academic achievement. According to an analysis published in the Review of Educational Research, low-income students tend to lose one to three months worth of reading skills during the summer while their peers from wealthier families tend to gain them.
Ayeisha knows the situation all too well.
“They say a lot of their friends can go to certain camps through the Y, which is very expensive,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You can’t go there. That’s not something we could do.’”
Ayeisha said she has found some camps that offer financial help, but that she doesn’t qualify.
“I fall in that in between where I don’t make enough, but I make too much,” she said. “It’s like, well, it’s just me and two kids, so there’s no way I make enough for anything, you know!”
Karisma and Kaiden’s father died unexpectedly six years ago. Karisma recently wrote an essay about the experience, which left her and her sister struggling to understand their grief, and left her mother as the family’s sole breadwinner.
“I knew he wasn’t coming back, but I didn’t know it meant forever,” Karisma wrote. “I really just wanted my dad to pick me up, and never let me go.”
Ayeisha has done everything to keep the memory of her girls’ father alive and to provide for her daughters. She works full-time as a medical billing specialist and occasionally picks up part-time jobs on the side.
Ayeisha’s grandmother, Maude Owens, lives with the family and helps care for the girls. This summer, she’s the girls’ only adult supervision when Ayeisha is at work.
The 78-year-old usually holds court in the living room and watches daytime judge shows or 1970s sitcoms like “Emergency!”.
Ayeisha has tried to sign her daughters up for camps through Raleigh Parks and Rec. One year, she got to the office for registration and found a line out the door. The next year, signup moved online. She remembers trying to log in at midnight, then 5 a.m. The website kept crashing.
“That process in itself was just so exhausting,” she said. “I felt defeated, because I’m like, ‘Well, I have to work, I don’t have time to sit up all night long, waiting on a computer to sign up. This is not concert tickets.’”
Both years, the girls ended up on a waitlist. Ayeisha would get a call a few days before a spot opened up at a weeklong camp.
“And I’m like, you can’t call me today and tell me in two days, or tomorrow, you need $100 or more dollars,” she said. “I don’t have that....So there were weeks I had to let go.”
Kaiden loves acting. Her mom tried and didn’t have any luck finding an affordable theater camp this year. But Kaiden successfully auditioned for a local, professional production of the musical Oliver this summer. So instead of paying to attend a camp, Kaiden got paid a small stipend for acting and singing in a professional production.
Other than that, Kaiden and Karisma have spent their summer days biking and skating, choreographing dance routines in the living room, and searching for their favorite neighborhood rodent: Moochie the Groundhog.
“We led a trail of bread to go to our house,” Karisma said. “Like, ‘Come down, Moochie, you’re welcome to eat our weeds!’”
Still, Ayeisha has worried about them getting bored – and not getting the learning opportunities they could at a summer camp.
“They always say, ‘No, mommy. We’re fine. Don’t worry about it,’” Ayeisha said. “But as a mom, it’s like, what is there that I can do? It’s very...very disappointing.”
In July, Kaiden started a mock school she called The Academy” in the family’s living room. She came up with a course schedule to teach her younger sister language arts, math, science, and even home economics.
“I came home last night, and Karisma was really showing me her homework as if, ‘Mommy look what I did in school today,” Ayeisha said. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m just trying to eat this ice cream sandwich in peace. You’re up here showing me some fake homework? Like, what is going on?’”
Ayeisha thinks back to something the girls’ father said to Kaiden.
“To make sure that she always taught her sister everything that she knew,” Ayeisha said. “And so she took that to heart. Especially when she started school, she’s always come home and shared with her, ‘This is what I’m learning. This is what we’re doing.’”
“If they don’t get along at no other point, if they’re getting along in that moment, I’m happy about it. I’m okay.”
Education experts say informal, at-home learning can prevent kids from losing ground ahead of the school year. Even so, Ayeisha believes more public resources should be put towards affordable summer programs.
“My girls thankfully – I may not be able to put them in activities – but they do have things at home to keep them occupied and to keep them learning,” she said. “And everyone doesn’t have that.“
Some school districts in North Carolina have turned to year-round schools, in part, as a way to prevent kids from losing knowledge during the summer. But advocates say government budgets largely haven’t made summer learning a priority.
“I think it just further pushes kids further and further away,” Ayeisha said.
Ayeisha remembers feeling a lot of “nervousness,” she said, at the start of summer vacation.
A couple months later, amid plans for back-to-school shopping, she thinks her daughters are doing just fine – especially since they’ve found ways to keep learning that go beyond formal lessons and textbooks and expensive summer camps.
“I see that they have entertained themselves and they’re not complaining and they’re fine and they’re finding things to do to keep themselves busy,” she said.
Some of her favorite summer moments, Ayeisha said, have been coming home after a long day of work and hearing what the girls have gotten up to.
One day it could be wandering the woods, and another, an impromptu karaoke session.