The Other 60 Percent

Summer activities help bridge learning gap

Ronald Blan, 12, shows the roller coaster he designed in robotics class at Adams County Camp.

The contraption Ronald Blan designed and was proudly displaying seemed more ferris wheel than roller coaster – but when the designer is a 12-year-old from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, such quibbles seem insignificant.

The point is, the 2-foot tall kinetic structure, set up in a classroom at Scott Carpenter Middle School in unincorporated Adams County, works.

“I’ve learned how to build a structure and make it spin,” said Blan. “I’ve had a lot of fun. I like technology. And I like roller coasters.”

Elsewhere in the school, youngsters were dabbling in computer technology to create a podcast. Others were working on their “downward-facing dog” stretch in yoga class. And others were preparing for that greatest of all childhood summertime joys, a trip to Water World.

Fighting summer learning loss

Adams County Camp is summer camp, with a twist. It’s all fun, yes, but camp organizers believe that what happens here this summer will impact these children and this community in profound ways for years to come.

Studies indicate that about two-thirds of the “achievement gap” between disadvantaged ninth-graders and their more financially well-off classmates can be explained by what happens – or fails to happen – over summer during their elementary school years.

First-graders at Adams County Camp sing a song while they prepare to go swimming.

Educators call this “summer slide” or “summer learning loss.”

“Research shows that poor kids may outlearn rich kids during the school year,” said Beverly Kingston, director of the Adams County Youth Initiative, which sponsors the camp. “But during the summer, it disappears.”

Now in its second year, the six-week Adams County Camp is serving 550 disadvantaged children in grades one through eight at three school-based locations.

Funded in part with a five-year, $8 million federal Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant, the camp is a collaboration among three Adams County school districts, the Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District, the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and Growing Home, a local care provider for the homeless.

Cost of camp minimal for families

The cost to campers is minimal: $15, viewed as a “commitment fee” after some of the campers in last year’s smaller but free pilot program attended only sporadically.

For that small investment, campers get academic enrichment activities and adventure outings unlike anything they’re likely to experience at home. Actual cost to run the camp is approximately $530 per camper.

Campers stretch as they learn yoga poses at Adams County Camp.

Youth program providers such as Mad Science, Kids Tek and Colorado Fusion Soccer Club bring their programs to the camp sites: Westminster School District’s Carpenter and Shaw Heights middle schools, and Adams City Middle School in Commerce City.

Because the camps are located at schools with summer feeding programs, free breakfast and lunch is available to all campers and most take advantage of that perk.

Counselors, mostly college students, supervise, mentor and lead activities in the four areas the camp emphasizes: sports, arts, technology and service.

Field trips to the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, Colorado School of Mines, the Denver Zoo, Adventure Golf and a Colorado Rockies game round out the program.

“A lot of our kids never get more than four blocks away from home,” said Kingston.

Of the 550 campers this year, 78 percent are minority and 77 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a typical measurement of poverty. Half the campers come from homes where their parents have a high school diploma or less.

Impact seen from first year

Last year, in its first year, the camp served some 185 children at Carpenter Middle School. The campers came from 26 different Adams County schools. While school officials did not evaluate campers’ later test scores, other measures seem to indicate the camp had a positive impact.

To learn more

Visit the Adams County Youth Initiative’s online library of research materials on best practices for at-risk youth.

See the 2009 Adams County Student Survey, administered by the Adams County Youth Initiative last fall to 27,770 students.

Read this brief, “Summer Can Set Kids on the Right – or Wrong – Course,” from the National Summer Learning Association.

“We definitely started school on a much more positive note last year,” said Carpenter Principal Kelly Williams. “It was a very successful school year. A lot of different factors went into that, but I know the camp had something to do with it. Discipline problems were cut in half last year.”

Indeed, juvenile crime reports within a 2-mile radius of the school were down dramatically last summer — from 1,178 during the summer of 2008 to 876 in the summer of 2009.

Kingston said this year, schools will look at student test scores to see what sort of impact the summer camp experiences has had on summer learning loss.

“This is a great gem that’s happening in Adams County,” said Becky Hoffman, manager of community initiatives for ACYI.

Hoffman hopes that publicizing the camp will lead to more community backing. The camp needs books. It needs more recreational equipment. It needs donated snacks for the children. It needs donors to sponsor individual campers.

Come fall, ACYI will organize an Adams Camp Community Board to begin oversight of the camp and increase community participation, she said.

Rebecca Jones can be reached at [email protected].

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”


Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”