Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Extending learning into the summer

Academic program keeps elementary students focused, gives them a jump on the next school year

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
At Kemp Mill Elementary School, Tinia Johnson and Eve Gates work on fifth-grade math skills Monday in Dan Picca’s class during the Extended Learning Opportunities program.
Dan Picca knows it’s not easy to teach elementary school students in the summer, but he also knows how much the children in Montgomery County’s Extended Learning Opportunities program can benefit from extra instruction.

‘‘Division is our weakest subject right now,” said Picca, an energetic, experienced math teacher at Kemp Mill Elementary in Silver Spring, to his class of soon-to-be fifth-graders last week. ‘‘You didn’t have to learn a lot of it in fourth grade, but we’ll do a whole lot in fifth grade.”

The aim of the four-week ELO program, which began July 7 in 28 elementary schools throughout the county, is to allow students a look at the next school year’s curriculum within a laid-back classroom atmosphere. Titled ‘‘Summer Adventures in Learning,” the program, which is free and voluntary, includes breakfast, lunch and transportation.

With the sun shining through the classroom windows Friday, the graduated fourth-graders at Kemp Mill were getting started on the math curriculum for fifth grade. Since there are no tests, homework assignments or grades in ELO, Picca decided his class deserved some competitive fun.

After giving the students some time to complete division problems, he divided the class into two teams, red and yellow. He put one of the problems on the board and chose a student from the yellow team to solve it.

When Daniela Zelaya answered correctly, members of the yellow team cheered because the answer gave the squad points to catch up to the red team, which had taken an early lead in the four-week competition.

‘‘Mr. Picca makes learning fun,” said Kemp Mill student Christopher Lewis. ‘‘When we answer a question, we get candy.”

ELO is in its sixth year after being established through the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The program is strictly for Title I schools, which have a high percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-cost meals and receive additional support from the federal government.

Joyce Colbert, supervisor for the county’s Title I programs, said more than 6,000 county students will participate this summer, more than 80 percent of the roughly 7,000 that are registered. A goal is to prevent what educators call ‘‘summer loss,” where students fail to retain material from the school year.

‘‘The key is academic focus of students throughout the summer,” Colbert said. ‘‘It’s a balance of academics and having the opportunity to enjoy friends.”

Floyd Starnes, principal at Kemp Mill Elementary, said statistics show that elementary school students are at a greater risk of summer loss, as are students from low-income households.

In a preliminary study done during last year’s program, it was determined fourth-graders participating in the program had higher math assessment scores than those who did not, Colbert said. In a similar study, first-graders that attended the ELO program exhibited a higher reading level than those who did not.

Picca, who gives his students a pep talk in the hallway before each class to get them excited for the day’s work, said ELO is about keeping students’ minds fresh during a time where most children do not think about school.

‘‘The whole thing is they are learning, but it’s so fun they don’t realize they are learning,” Picca said.

At Kemp Mill, there are two ELO classes each of kindergarten, first and second grade and one class each of third, fourth and fifth grade. The 25 fifth-graders take math from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. before heading to a reading class until 12:30 p.m. Students are then given a free lunch and either head home at 1 p.m. or participate in an after-school program until 4:30 p.m.

The after-school program is offered to students at 10 county elementary schools for $28 total and blends art instruction with recreation.

‘‘It’s more fun than regular school,” said Kemp Mill student Mark Kazlau, adding that he liked the after-school program because he could play kickball and basketball.

Eliya Cook, who will be a fifth-grader next year, said she attends both ELO and the after-school program, which helps her parents.

‘‘They have to go to work and have no one to watch us,” she said. ‘‘Plus, it’s free.”

Gladys Giron, whose daughter Alexis Hines has attended the ELO program for three years, said she has seen noticeable improvements in Alexis’ math performance.

‘‘It’s important to refresh what she has been doing throughout the year,” Giron said. ‘‘Usually when they are out for the summer, they tend to forget things.”

Starnes said ELO is effective because it keeps children occupied like any summer camp but also improves reading and math levels.

‘‘As a parent, I know the challenge is to get the kids off the couch,” he said. ‘‘Most parents just see [the educational component] as a bonus.”