Summer learning takes center stage

The raucous cheers of more than 100 students gathered for “Beginning of Day” exercises at the First Stage Theater Academy die down just long enough for a school-age girl to issue her bold challenge to the group:

“If you scan all of the people who are leaving, there’s at least one person who you don’t probably know. So, I’m going to challenge everyone to make one new friend, even if they’re going to leave tomorrow! Just make one more friend.”

The kids erupt again as the challenges continue, offering ongoing evidence of the affirmation, confidence and social skills each gains by participating in the popular summer program. 

First Stage was one of 29 nonprofits to receive funding through the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Summer Grants for Kids program this year. Since 2013, the program has awarded 156 modest grants totaling $162,000 and supporting a wide variety of programs that counteract summer learning loss while keeping kids connected and learning beyond the classroom.

The Foundation’s strategies for strengthening education for students throughout the region include a focus on experiential learning, or learning through experiences and activities. The summer grants increase opportunities for youth to engage in camps and programs featuring science, agriculture, creative arts, music, writing, theater and more. 

“Students need high quality activities to do throughout the summer while parents are working or taking care of other responsibilities,” said Jeannie Fenceroy, senior program manager of education and scholarships at the Foundation. “When we support and enrich our children with high-quality activities, we grow citizens who will give back to this community and who will make this community a better place to live.”

Fund adviser Cathy Markson, along with her extended family, has recognized how kids benefit from such programs. Their philanthropy through the Asher and Susan Nichols Family Fund has supported summer camp scholarships for youth at Urban Ecology Center. Cathy’s niece, Megan Marks-Peltz, brought the idea to the family.

“When I saw a diverse group of kids learning, it took me back to the days of school,” said Marks-Peltz. “It made me happy to have the option to donate to something specific. I liked that it was a fun opportunity to learn during the summer, and you didn't have to be at school.”

Added Markson: “When kids are able to do hands on learning outside in nature, it can be so beneficial. It’s a great feeling to afford these children the opportunity to participate in summer camp activities, continue learning and not have to worry about paying for it.”

Similarly, First Stage used its grant from the Foundation this year to help provide need-based scholarships and transportation to students attending summer academy sessions. Giana Blazquez, resident teaching artist, said support expands access to children who may not otherwise be able to attend their program.

The academy exemplifies First Stage’s mantra of teaching life skills through stage skills. Students learn acting theory and improvisation, but along the way develop self-confidence, public speaking skills and understanding through the study of various characters.

“Being able to look at a script and analyze the actions of somebody else, put yourself in their shoes, and try and understand them on a more human level, helps with things like empathy,” Blazquez said.

Academy students will tell you how unique the environment is. Madison Jones, 10, has been both a summer theater academy student and a “young performer.” She was in the cast of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and will play Peppermint Patty in this season’s production of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

“I always make lots of friends, and I really like my teachers,” Madison said. “Friendships are different here because there’s no judgment.”