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School's Out, Progress Is In

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School's out for summer, an exciting time for girls and young women to celebrate a bit of freedom and enjoy childhood. In the midst of this time off, thanks to progress made by tenacious advocates, girls can engage in many activities -- previously open only to boys -- that will help them develop into more successful, independent and confident young women.

This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act that bars sex discrimination in publicly funded programs. It has increased girls' access to public education, extracurricular programs and, yes, athletics, for which it's best known.

At a recent panel discussion about the anniversary, speakers focused on the hard-won changes they'd experienced coming of age in the past few decades, including simple amenities like locker rooms and uniforms for sports teams.

When the Young Women's Leadership Council of Chicago Foundation for Women hosted a similar event this spring for the 20-something generation, the responses were markedly different. They saw girls' participation in sports as normal, and access was expected, if not taken for granted.

As a recent report on Illinois girls shows, 42.3% of girls in Chicago high schools participate in at least one sports team. Compare that with 1971, when girls were just 7% of high school varsity athletes, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.

Title IX's benefits haven't resulted in equal access across all communities. Economic and racial barriers have left many neighborhoods without playgrounds, soccer fields or streets safe from violence, let alone summer classes and programs that invite girls to learn and dream of what they can become. As clips from an in-progress documentary by Kartemquin Films shows, schools in low-income neighborhoods may not even have fields available where girls can practice.

This is where creative nonprofits in and around Chicago have stepped in, to provide summer programs to girls in the areas of physical activities, life skills and leadership development.

Across Chicago's communities of color, Girls in the Game offers 2,500 elementary and middle school girls each year the chance to get active in a girls-only space. The Sports and Leadership Summer Camp offers scholarships and sliding-scale tuition fees so that girls from all backgrounds can participate. The month-long camp exposes girls to 30 sports under the leadership of adult mentors and college athletes, as well as teaching healthy eating, self-esteem building and leadership training.

Girls Rock! Chicago hosts two summer camps for girls ages eight to 16. At each session 75 girls will pick up an instrument, form a band, write and record an original song, and perform it on stage -- all in one week. Not only do girls get to have fun, develop teamwork skills and build self-confidence, but the experience also helps them reject preconceived notions of what girls can't or shouldn't do.

Each year Project Exploration takes girls, mostly African American and Latina, on a summer field trip to study geology, chemistry and biology. At Yellowstone National Park this year, the All Girls Expedition lets high school students put classroom learning to a real-world test, tracking collared coyotes and studying the water quality of geysers. Constance Robinson, this year's expedition team leader and a 2011 Woodlawn Secondary School graduate, wrote a blog about what her second Project Exploration trip to Yellowstone means to her -- before she heads to Penn State this fall.

Well-designed summer programs improve girls' self-images and fitness habits, and they also expand the horizons for both girls and their families. Without four decades of Title IX, we wouldn't have as much to celebrate.