Summer programs are in full swing in the Birmingham City School system. Students can fill their schedules with classes about coding, robotics, literature, gardening, and music.
For the sixth installment in Weld’s year-long education series, Weld visited summer programs across the Birmingham City School system.
“Little Big Shots” at Glen Iris
This year’s theme at Glen Iris Elementary is meant to help the students figure out what they want to do when they grow up, Assistant Principal Tronci Southall-Mason said.
“No matter your age, no matter your background, you’ve got talents,” Principal Michael Wilson said.
In the mornings, the students focus on reading and writing about their areas of interest. Teachers are expected to use that input as they build their lessons. In the afternoons, students get to decide whether to take technology classes like coding and robotics, or more hands-on activities like gardening, Southhall-Mason said.
Sydney Graham, an AmeriCorps fellow at Glen Iris, is in charge of the gardening program. As Graham walked through the school’s garden, she explained how she collaborates with the teachers.
“So, for example, if the kids are learning about square feet and perimeter and area, we’ll have them measure the areas of each plot,” Graham said. “[We] make what they learn applicable to real life.”
“We wanted to get them excited about school,” Southall-Mason said, adding that in the 10 years Glen Iris has held the program, they have seen improvements in the students who participate in these programs compared to those who do not.
That summer programs improve participants’ academic performance has been borne out by study after study. In 2011, the Wallace Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that works to improve education for disadvantaged children, published an analysis of the existing scientific literature on the effectiveness of summer programs and found the vast majority of research concluded that summer programs improve student achievement.
“Summer learning programs have the potential to help children and youth improve their academic and other outcomes. This is especially true for children from low-income families who might not have access to educational resources throughout the summer months and for low-achieving students who need additional time to master academic content,” the report found.
Across the board, administrators of these summer programs have extolled the benefits of being able to deviate somewhat from the rigid structure set by the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
Southall-Mason said that the benefits of being able to intellectually challenge these children with a varied curriculum that expands beyond Common Core are invaluable. This flexibility allows teachers to cater their lesson plans to their students’ progress and individual interests.
“They’re reading, doing math, and most importantly problem-solving,” Wilson said. “It’s a way to prevent summer learning loss.”
The National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit that works to expand summer learning opportunities nationwide, defines summer learning loss as “the phenomenon where young people lose academic skills over the summer.”
“By the end of summer, students perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring,” the Wallace Foundation report notes. “Summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. While all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer, low-income students lose more ground in reading, while their high-income peers may even gain [progress in reading skills]. Most disturbing is that summer learning loss is cumulative; over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and high-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.”
Parents can take steps to fight this loss by themselves, such as encouraging their children to occasionally practice their math or language skills or taking them to a library. In a study published in the journal Society for Research in Child Development, researchers found that “even a little academic practice” during the summer improves children’s educational advancement. However, summer programs remain a particularly effective tool in reversing summer learning loss, experts said.
Many programs in Birmingham encourage parents to participate, whether by reading a book with their child each night or having their children read street signs to them on the way home.
“Even if it’s just a 10-minute car ride home, that’s 10 minutes you’ve had to talk about your child’s day,” Southall-Mason said.
Seeking to Get More Students Into STEM
Phillips Academy is hosting the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK), a program organized by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). This summer is the third year the NSBE has sponsored SEEK in Birmingham.
Over 400 students entering grades four through six from all over Birmingham applied for one of 130 spots available, down from 350 spots last summer.
This three-week program is part of an initiative “to address the underrepresentation of African-American students in STEM fields,” according to the NSBE.
Principal Emeka Nzeocha firmly believes in the organization’s goals.
“At this juncture we are in, in terms of what you can do with technology, STEM learning is more crucial now than ever,” Nzeocha said.
According to a survey of 91,000 college graduates in 2010 done by the National Science Foundation, 8 percent were African Americans. The NSBE aims to have 10,000 African American graduates with engineering degrees nationwide by the year 2020.
So far, SEEK operates in 16 cities and has reached over 15,000 students, according to the NSBE website.
In last summer’s program, students had the opportunity to build catapults, wind turbines, and gravity cruisers. “Competition Fridays” allow each grade to compete against itself.
“For example, they have to build a glider. They test it and test it, and then they go back and make changes,” said Janet Fields, a former teacher at Phillips Academy.
Morgan, an 11-year-old who has returned for her second summer at SEEK, loves the change of pace.
“In regular school, you just do paperwork, but here you get to work with modules and projects and stuff,” Morgan said. “My favorite part is getting to learn new things, and having the mentors break them down for us so we can understand.”
Guiding the students are mentors who are typically engineering graduates or college students working towards a degree in STEM. Three mentors and a teacher are in charge of groups of about 20 students.
“Their enthusiasm, their willingness, just giving that time and effort… They’re always very happy to be here,” Wilson said of the mentors.
Lauren Garrett, a George Washington University graduate and SEEK mentor, said this experience is invaluable for everyone involved.
“A lot of these kids don’t get exposure to black professionals,” Garrett said. She enjoys serving her community and seeing the students every day. It’s her second year volunteering for SEEK, but she remembers her first day well. “Almost immediately, you could tell how excited the kids were to do this.”
“I would love to see a situation where we expand the program, and the STEM learning, to each state,” Wilson said. “Is there anything we can’t do if we just invest in our kids?”
“It’s Like Teaching Someone to Fish”
Over at Hayes K-8, band director Thomas Henderson shook his palms upwards, motioning for the woodwind section to build up to its crescendo. The students at Hayes have been working on this piece for a few days.
During the school year, Henderson is the band director at Ossie Ware Mitchell Middle School. He has been involved with June Tunes, Hayes’ annual summer music camp, since it began in 1999.
June Tunes allows students to practice both in a group setting as well as receive one-on-one instruction. The camp is open to students in grades five through 12 who already know how to play an instrument and wish to sharpen their skills.
School-based music programs like these are proven to improve the short-term memory capabilities of the students, regardless of their prior skill level, according to an article published in the Australian Journal of Music Education.
Henderson points to a rhythmic section they’ve been practicing, scribbled on the whiteboard. As Henderson’s hand moves from note to note, the trumpet players silently push the valves. One younger boy’s eyes are fixed on the player’s hands next to him, imitating his motions.
This scene is repeated over and over throughout the young orchestra as they rehearse the rhythm section, following Henderson’s commands.
“Older kids are paired with younger kids, helping them along and serving as ‘section leaders,’” Henderson said.
“Our main objective is to teach them different styles of music and how to read notes,” Henderson said. “Things like trumpet shakes and glissandos, we’ll give them homework and a website to go on when they get home to learn them.”
In an article published by the Journal of Adolescent Research, “participation in performing arts was also related to greater liking of school.” The article goes on to say that adolescents who play instruments, especially in social settings like the June Tunes program, are proven to have higher self-esteem, improved attention and better social skills than those who do not play any instrument.
“It’s like teaching someone to fish,” Henderson said. “At first, they don’t know what they’re doing but the more you teach them, the more they can have fun with it and then that light comes on, it’s like, ‘oh yeah, I can do that!’”
June Tunes will conclude on June 29 with a free concert at Carver High School.
Weld’s next monthly installment of the Education in Birmingham series will focus on the correlation between school dropout rates and crime.