by Mary (Galer) Herschelman
“It’s so much fun,” said Penny Niemann, kindergarten teacher at Litchfield, inaugural program director at Camp Panther Summer School.
Funded by federal dollars earmarked for the fight against COVID, the program was offered to students in Kindergarten to Grade 4 Monday through Thursday from June 1 to July 1. The school district welcomed 116 students this summer.
“This is an opportunity to encourage literacy, not in a school setting, but in a more relaxed, camp-like setting,” Niemann said.
The program runs daily from 7.45 a.m. to 1.30 a.m. and includes both breakfast and lunch, as well as snacks. Meals are provided daily by Litchfield McDonald’s. District staff also provide transportation to and from the program for students who need it. About 20 district staff have been hired to staff the Camp Panther program.
“Our children have missed five to seven months of learning opportunities due to COVID,” Niemann said. “This program is designed to put the books in children’s hands and dive deep into learning.
Niemann said when students arrive they are greeted by name before a special morning opening program for all students.
“The students run off the bus to come here in the morning,” Niemann said. “It’s just magic.”
After the morning opening and breakfast, students head to their individual level classes. Niemann said they had had such a huge response to the program that they had to add more teachers to reduce class sizes.
The morning session really focuses on literacy based activities. Most of the classrooms are decorated with tents and campers, artificial campfires and more.
Students have breaks to play outside and at other times in the play center throughout the morning. After lunch, they take advantage of the special educational programs of the YMCA of Edwardsville and the University of Illinois outreach office, with lots of science activities. Participants also visit the Litchfield Public Library once a week and have the chance to discover a book to read that week.
“The kids have so much fun that they forget they are learning,” Niemann said.
She added that thanks to the extension office and YMCA programs, students have built flashlights and robots, organized obstacle courses and learned colors.
“The beautiful thing about this camp is that everyone here wants to be here,” Niemann said. “Even the staff chose to be part of this program. They gave a month of their summer to help our children.
Students also have the opportunity to win incentive prizes. Every day that a student attends, he or she receives $ 10 in Panther Bucks to spend in the camp store. Niemann said many students saved their Panther Bucks to win bigger prizes at the end of the camp.
Additionally, students also get their names in a picture for each day they attend camp. The district will award a boys and girls bicycle for each grade level, two iPads, iTunes gift cards, beach passes, restaurant gift cards and more. Niemann added that the Litchfield Chamber of Commerce and local businesses were so kind with their donations to the program.
Plans are already underway for a similar program next summer.
“It has been an amazing month,” Niemann said. “The kids love everything and we’re so glad to have them here. “