“Urbaaan!” Christy Brock called out, cupping her hands around her mouth.
“Adventure Squad!” 20 little voices called back in response.
In the basement of 16th Street’s Mosaic Church, it was time for the Morning Meeting.
Students sat on the floor in a misshapen circle as Brock began to tell the story of the Blagden boys. Sons of one of Washington D.C.’s most powerful mill owners in 1860s, the boys lived along Rock Creek. They ran and played in that nearby forest more than 100 years ago. Today, Brock and her squad were on the hunt for historical evidence.
Brock and the children are part of an organization called Urban Adventure Squad.
Four years ago, Elana Mintz started Urban Adventure Squad, a D.C. nonprofit aimed at providing families with structured, hands-on learning for students on the days that school is out of session. The organization runs half-day, full day programs and summer camps.
When the idea for UAS began to take shape, Mintz, 46, was working full time as an editor and struggling to find an affordable, reliable, structured environment for her children when school was closed. It wasn’t a unique problem.
American adults work an average of 250 days per year. In 2017, D.C. Public Schools were in session for 184 days.
“Right away, you have a 70-day gap,” Mintz said. “That’s why we started. That gap is what presents the biggest financial and logistical strain for families.”
Most school districts in the United States settled on the current academic calendar in the early 1960s, when only a third of adult women were working. Today, 75 percent of women with school-aged children are working.
Between 1979 and 2006, the median middle-class work week increased by 11 hours. In half of all married-couple families today, both parents are employed outside of the home. While 70 percent of those couples work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the median closing time for elementary schools is 2:30 p.m.
Mintz understands the stress that those working hours place on families. She ran 120 program days in 2017 to help bridge that gap.
Heather Curtis has been sending her third-grader to UAS programs since he was in kindergarten. Mintz and Brock check the academic calendars of the D.C. schools and plan program days accordingly, which Curtis says, “takes that burden and emotional labor off of me.”
UAS programming allows Curtis and her husband to show up for their full-time jobs as usual on days that schools are closed for holidays and professional development days.
“My emotional well-being is what they really provide,” Curtis said.
The lives of American families have changed drastically since the 1960s, but the school day hasn’t. A report from the Center for American Progress estimated that child care costs families an average of $6,600 every year.
“Summer is a really expensive proposition for working families,” Mintz said. “When we had our third child, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. What on earth are we supposed to do during the summer?’”
From the beginning, Mintz has tried to make UAS programming affordable for all families. She applies for grant money and holds fundraisers to support the scholarship program that makes UAS accessible for families who cannot afford their regular rates. Programs typically cost $70 per day for one child, or $50 per day for each sibling.
“If we’re saying we’re supporting working families, we can’t do that if we’re only supporting a set of working families who can afford to pay,” she said.
As Mintz looks to the future, she is thinking about how to broaden access to UAS for all families. Almost 1,000 students have come through the squad, but most programs fill up, and Mintz has to turn families away. The wait lists frustrate parents and limit Mintz’ ability to support working families.
“We have to make sure that as we grow, we grow carefully. I don’t want to be in a position of getting so big and unsustainable that I have to turn to people and say that a grant ended so I can’t pay their salary anymore,” Mintz said. “So we’re working right now on our grant strategies … It’s an everyday learning experience.”
Back in 2014 when Mintz founded Urban Adventure Squad, she was still working full time, so she enlisted the help of her former babysitter, Brock, to help get the project off the ground.
Brock, a 32-year-old former preschool teacher, is the director of programming. She researches and develops curricula for all UAS program days.
“If I’m not excited about a program, we’re not doing it,” Brock said. She puts an emphasis on exciting, skill-based learning for her students, whom Brock and Mintz call squad members.
Mintz and Brock like to keep squad members outside for about four hours of their program days. Connecting with the outdoors is a key component to the UAS model.
“There’s just this sort of magic to being in the woods,” said Brock, who tries to get the squad members into green spaces as much as possible to balance the urban living of D.C.
There is also an emphasis on screen-free learning and playing at UAS. The students aren’t allowed to bring electronics, and programming rarely calls for it.
“Kids are connected too much, there’s no question,” Margot Susca, an American University professor, said. “We expect screens to educate us, to entertain us, and to distract us.”
Susca, who has a doctorate in mass communication with a focus in children and media, said that when screen time becomes a replacement for, rather than a supplement to, the outside world, children’s socialization skills are impaired.
Research also shows that extended screen time is shortening children’s attention spans, which is making them more irritable. The shorter attention spans cause trouble with concentration, which makes small tasks feel much more difficult than they are.
When young children struggle or fail to complete those tasks, it can often lead to temper tantrums, according to a study done by the American Psychological Association.
Dexter Coburn, a third-grader who regularly attends the programs, said that he’s much happier as a squad member than he is at home when he’s off from school.
“At home I would really just play some games and watch TV, but at UAS we get to be outside, explore and hike. I get to play with all my friends,” the 9-year-old said.
Spending time outside is a benefit to children, wrote Dr. Claire McCarthy in a recent article.
She said unplugging from electronics in favor of outdoor time fosters an appreciation for the nature, which is crucial because of the ways pollution and climate change are threatening the planet.
“We always talk about the next generation, and this next generation has a lot ahead of them,” said Laurel Clark, a squad leader who helps Brock lead program days. “Showing them how to interact respectfully with their environment is one of the most important things that we can do.”
Melanie Coburn, Dexter’s mom, has been sending her two boys to UAS programs for three years. She said she has seen positive changes in her sons.
“My boys have talked so much more about recycling and saving the Earth. I’ve noticed a shift in their mindset and being more proactive with that,” Coburn said.
Brock centers many of her programs around environmental education. Earlier this year, Mintz and Brock won the 2018 Community Stormwater Solutions Grant from the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment to implement a curriculum on D.C.’s hidden waterways for the students at Stokes Public Charter School.
The grant created a partnership between UAS and Stokes that allows Mintz and Brock to bring their curriculum and programming into the school days. They work with teachers to provide a hands-on approach to understanding the pollution of the Anacostia River.
“It was a huge accomplishment for us because it meant that the D.C. government was funding curriculum work in an area that is really important for the futures of the kids – the health of the Anacostia River,” said Mintz.
Mintz and Brock take the children on hikes around the school where they can see the impact that D.C.’s underground waterways have on the river. They then create maps of those waterways.
Squad Members learn about the impact of their litter by identifying the way trash travels from the street, through the storm drains, through the underground waterways and eventually to the Anacostia.
Mintz said children have more answers than they’re typically given credit for. She sees her job as framing problems for the kids to solve.
At that Dec. 7 morning meeting, Brock framed the problem: How do we know for sure that the Blagden boys existed here? The squad members were searching for evidence of the mill that stood a century ago.
The children bundled up and headed for Rock Creek. Brock led the way across 16th Street and through residential neighborhoods. After about a mile, the squad reached a dead-end road with an entrance to a hiking trail that was so overgrown you could almost have missed it.
They started on the path, twisting and turning through the narrow trail until it met the bed of Rock Creek. Brock sat the children down along the water’s edge and asked everyone to take a minute and look around for something that would help them understand what it might have been like to be a Blagden boy.
It was quiet for a moment until a small voice echoed through the forest.
“There was a bridge there!” one child yelled, pointing to the overgrown remains of a stone bridge on one side of the creek.
Brock grinned. “That’s right. That bridge connected the Blagdens’ home to Blagden Mill,” she said. But that wasn’t all.
The group continued their hiked to Pulpit Rock, the very place where the Blagden boys used to play. There, carved into the rock, were the initials of each of the Blagden boys. It was a physical representation of history. The Blagdens had left their mark, and the squad had found their evidence.