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

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.