DENVER — Inside Magen Klcoyn’s classroom at AUL Alternative High School in Denver, the audience is often a tough crowd.
“I do stand-up comedy on the side, so I laugh because I’m like, ‘You guys are a harder audience than like, my drunk adults at night,’” Kilcoyn said of her students.
But if anyone can handle a crowd like this, it’s Ms. Kilcoyn, or ‘Kill’ as the students call her.
“We came in and turned this school around,” Kilcoyn said of the current administration and staff. “It was in the red. They were about to shut it down. We had basically been given a year to turn it around."
That was four years ago, pre-pandemic.
AUL is now thriving, survived the pandemic and is growing by leaps and bounds.
“We went from active enrollment in the building when we got here; on average (it) was about 30-35 kids a day,” she said. “And we've got a waitlist of at any given time of 40, 50, 60 kids at this point. Our enrollment right now is teetering around 150-160.”
Kilcoyn says the key has been really "simplistic."
“It's all about repetitive, positive interactions,” Kilcoyn said. “And so every time we greet our young people, we use their name, like really honoring their identity, who they are and where they’re coming from.”
It’s a success story. And now, as Kilcoyn and thousands of other educators begin to wind down the school year, we’re going 360 on what summer looks like this year – offering parents a guide on how to solve summer after two long years of online, then in-person, then online again, then in-person again, learning.
Everyone needs a break
“I think it's more than important, not just for kids, but for all of us to get a break,” said Dr. Anot Geva, clinician at the Behavioral Health and Wellness Center at Medical Center of Aurora. “It’s been a very long two years. Academically and socially, getting a break is important.”
Geva says summer break is the equivalent of letting your muscles recover after lifting weights.
“We need to give it a rest in order for us to recover and be able to go back,” Geva said. “Just pushing as hard as we can without stopping is not going to get us better results. Taking that strategic break is very important for recovery.”
Michael Atkins agrees.
“I've been in education since I was 19-years-old,” Atkins said. “Started out – I was a custodian over at a Smiley.”
Atkins is now the principal at Stedman Elementary.
“We need to redefine, we need to refinish and then reengage,” Atkins said.
He says students learn differently in spaces away from school and summer provides that alternative learning environment.
“I always say as an individual, we are never, we never stop learning,” Atkins said. “But we learn differently in different spaces.”
Summer is 'protein shake' for teachers
As for educators, Atkins says summer is like protein shake for teachers.
“They work 24/7 throughout the year,” he said. “They don’t have a day off, right? So, they need the break, as well.”
One way to recharge is to get outdoors.
“Starting at 7-years-old, we do full day adventures,” said Paul Dreyer, co-founder and CEO of Avid4Adventure. “Our goal is to empower kids to choose active and healthy lifestyles in the outdoors.”
Avid4Adventure started in 2004 and the objective here is to keep kids active in the summer.
“You have these moments where you have to struggle through something or a risky component,” Dreyer said. “And then you come out the other end. And that's a feeling of fulfillment and empowerment that you did that and that you reach that challenge.”
Dreyer says camp allows kids to step outside their comfort zone.
“We talk about positive risk-taking all the time at Avid where a kiddo is able to assess a risk, maybe not achieve something, or chooses to go a different direction, but they are in charge of really understanding what those risks are and fighting through those in a positive way and in a fun way to get a reward at the end,” Dreyer said.
Managing expense of camps, activities
Of course, camp can be very expensive, some families telling Denver7 they spend $2,000-$5,000 a summer on camps, which is not possible for many families.
It’s also impossible to get in sometimes with camps selling out within minutes of going online.
“I mean, I don’t know how people sign up for these camps,” said Erin Pier, a mom and school counselor. “They open them at 8:01 a.m. and if you're not in there, I've tried to sign my kids up for zoo camp and been 800th in line,” Pier said. “So, it’s like, ‘Join the waitlist.’ It’s gotten so incredibly competitive.”
SHARE YOUR OPINION | What are you thinking about as you plan this summer for your kids and family?
Pier recognizes how beneficial camp and getting outdoors can be, but also recognizes the inequities and has worked to close those gaps.
“Many students haven't every left Denver, right?” she said. “They've never left. Never left Colorado. I've actually asked the Denver Museum of Nature and Science before about their process for getting kids into their camps that might be underrepresented. And so, they have opportunities, it's just families don't know, it's so hard to access those at times and it's very difficult to get in.”
Add to that the difficulty of navigating summer when you’re a working parent for some families.
“Working parents who can’t afford camp, just the logistics of it can be mind-boggling,” Geva said. “The camp experience and everything that goes with it is also very, very suited for families where there's two parents and ample means to afford that.” But for single parents, it's very hard for working parents who don't have extended family that can help sometimes that could get in the way of getting their kids in.”
Geva and other experts suggest getting organized as a good place to start navigating summer.
Perhaps a graph with each kid’s name across the top, each week of summer listed down the side and what each of your children is doing that particular week of summer.
Rest and recharge
Ali Larson is a Denver mom who just wants her kids to have a restful summer.
“Where they're not stressed about anything school or academic related,” Larson said. “So, that's probably a main goal. I want them to just enjoy life and each other and their friends on the block. We love having them outside all day long.
Many camps do offer discounts.
“There’s also cheaper programs out there that really do provide sliding scales and discounts,” Geva said. “Don’t be shy. That’s why these programs exist. Diversity in the program also serves the program. It makes it more rich and more interesting. So, ask about discounts, ask about scholarships and then also get creative.”
One shining example of that creativity is Stedman Elementary.
“We have summer programs, free summer programs, as we align opportunities for students with out neighboring community organizations,” Atkins said. “We have a summer camp here, every single summer, a free summer camp that Kids Above Everything runs. And it’s a community partnership.”
Serving the underserved has become a mission at Avid4Adventure as well.
“A self-sustaining scholarship and financial system,” Dreyer said. “And so for the last decade or so – 100% of families who have applied for financial assistance have received financial assistance from us. One-hundred percent. We really want to take away that financial barrier.”
Kilcoyn says she worries about her kids not only regressing – or going through what’s known as the summer slide – but she also worries about her students staying out of trouble.
“I think it’s very easy, especially for people not in education, to assume that everybody is raised in a home of love,” Kilcoyn said. “And every kid gets breakfast before they walk out the door. Unfortunately, we serve a population at our school where they are raised in environments of survival, and the brain simply functions different when that's the case.”
She makes the argument for year-round school, which could help parents juggle child-care issues among other things.
“I love it,” Kilcoyn said. “And there's the myth, there's the conventional wisdom that teachers have three months off and that's simply not true. By the time we close the building, again, like mentally and physically close ourselves out of the building, and then we're here weeks before the kids come back. I think about what year-round schooling would do to give us that reset without that huge block of time that feels really daunting. I think it could work here.”
But – she also understand that does not work for many families.
“Some kids work through their summers,” Pier said. “Their families depend on them to also pull their weight financially.”
What everyone does seem to agree on is that summer should be a patchwork of activities – camps, swimming, riding bikes, playing in the dirt, family visits, volunteering and kids just being kids.
“It’s such a wonderful time for my kids to just get to do things that they love,” Pier said.
“That is critical that we have an opportunity to refine, refinish, reengage,” Atkins said.
“Absolutely. It’s both being physically active, which is beneficial for mental health regardless, but it's also that experience of independence,” Geva said.
Editor's Note: Denver7 360 | In-Depth explores multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 In-Depth stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com or use this form. See more 360 | In-Depth stories here.