After three weeks of pandemic-induced summer school, 14-year-old Richard Hernandez’s mother did not give him a break.

Richard, who will be a freshman next month at Central Gwinnett High School, joined about 80 other middle and high school students at a summer camp run by the Gwinnett County Public Schools Hispanic mentoring program.

“My mom decided for me, but I like it here,” Richard said Wednesday over ice cream, a treat from Bruster’s, in the Meadowcreek High School cafeteria. “I’ve kind of forgotten my math and this helps remind me of it.”

Hundreds of students participate in Gwinnett’s Community-Based Mentoring Program, which has separate divisions for Black and Hispanic students. The program runs summer camps every year, but this year’s have taken on added importance to help especially vulnerable students readjust after the disruption of COVID-19.

Students can be recommended to the mentoring programs if they are struggling with attendance, behavior, their classes, or if school counselors think they need additional support for other reasons.

Hispanic students have the lowest graduation rates of any racial or ethnic group in Gwinnett and nationally. Nury Castillo Crawford, the program’s director, said during the pandemic many parents called her directly to get help for their children.

Student Melanie Ortiz works on a computer during Gwinnett County's Hispanic Mentoring Program summer camp at Meadowcreek High School on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Christine Tannous /

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Two years ago, the Hispanic mentoring camp had 50 students and lasted one week, said Crawford. This year, the camp is three weeks long and almost 100 students are participating, including 20 who are doing the activities virtually from home.

Close to 100 boys and girls from grades 7-12 participated in the African American mentoring camp this week, said James Rayford, director of the program for boys. This year’s camp is mostly virtual, with in-person events Thursday and Friday.

About 98% of the 180,000 students in Gwinnett will be attending school in person next month when the academic year begins.

“We just want to have an opportunity for our students, to give them some tools to help the feel empowered as they transition back to day-to-day in-person learning,” Rayford said. “Some of the students have been virtual since the pandemic, so this may be their first time in a school building.”

The in-person activities include skating for the girls and public speaking and T-shirt design for the boys, Rayford said.

Both camps also took some students from outside the mentoring program whose parents were looking for summer activities. The Latin American Association placed a handful of high-schoolers in the Hispanic camp.

“Some of them are just, emotionally, they need to be around other people,” Crawford said. “They need more cheerleaders on their squad.”

With funding from the school district’s charitable foundation, the Hispanic mentoring camp is paying Gwinnett teachers to give 90 minutes of language arts and 90 minutes of math lessons every day. Students are grouped by grade level and the lessons come from the curriculum they will begin to receive next month.

The camp contains a number of other activities, including a book club, coding classes sponsored by Microsoft, crafts sponsored by the Hudgens Center for Art & Learning and a field trip to the Fernbank Museum.

Imanol Sandoval, 14, who will be a freshman at Berkmar High, liked the presentation by a man who called himself The Science Machine and played tricks with fire.

“It was like magic,” Imanol said to Richard and 14-year-old Brando Rodriguez as they ate ice cream.

“Yeah, but he explained it to us, but I forgot,” Richard said.

“It was science,” all three boys said together.

Kathie Leung, 12, and her 13-year-old sister Laily, who attend Trickum Middle, were happy to be back in a school building after more than a year of digital learning.

“I made one new friend,” Kathie said.

“It’s an experience we haven’t felt in a long time,” Laily said.

Graduation rates by race/ethnicity

The following data about Gwinnett County Public Schools is for the 2019-2020 school year:

American Indian/Alaskan: 75%

Asian/Pacific Islander: 91.8%

Black: 83.7%

Hispanic: 72.4%

Multiracial: 89.7%

White: 91.2%

Source: Governor’s Office of Student Achievement