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Omaha World-Herald: Program finds that traditional school + summer camp = more learning, more fun

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From left: Kassy Amaya, 12, Quentin Menyweather, 13, Jakason Burks, 12, Jayden Jorgenson, 12, and Jemese Baker, 13, gather around to look at an earthworm Kassy found outside through a computer-connected microscope as part of the Power Scholars Academy program. Photo by KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

By Julie Anderson / World-Herald staff writer
Published Tuesday, July 14, 2015

After a full year of school, Om Kami admits he's not always psyched on summer mornings to report in at 7 a.m. at McMillan Magnet Center.

But Om, now an eighth-grader, says he knows he'll regret it if he doesn't. He enjoys reading books and texting the authors. He has gained a better understanding of fractions. And there is dodgeball.

"We get to learn new things every day," he said.

Om is participating in a new-to-Omaha summer learning program called the Power Scholars Academy. It is one of a growing number of programs aimed at marrying some of the academic programming typically found in summer school with the enrichment activities more common to summer camps. Some also wrap around traditional summer school.

The Power Scholars Academy - which added seven cities this year, including Omaha, to an existing seven-city lineup - is a partnership among the Chicago-based YMCA of the USA and local Y's, the Boston area extended learning nonprofit BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) and local school districts.

Such programs are intended to stall summer slide, also known as summer learning loss. Documented over the past several decades, it's the finding that kids' skills can slip if not exercised over the long summer break.

Studies have indicated that the slippage can be greatest among low-income kids, who may have less access to books, museums and field trips, and thereby add to achievement gaps.

Last week, the Power Scholars Academy participated in Imagine Science, a national collaboration to bring STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities to underserved youths. Omaha is among three cities piloting the program, which is in its first year.

Locally, the program is a collaboration of the YMCA of Greater Omaha, Girls Inc. of Omaha, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension 4-H, and Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands. Nationally, it's backed by the groups' parent organizations.

The science program operates on three tiers. They range in intensity and duration from drop-in visits by a mobile science lab, like one at McMillan last week, to longer programs, said Noni Williams, a project lead who helped develop the lesson plans. The more intensive programs are offered at the Boys & Girls Clubs' sites in north and South Omaha.

During the mobile lab's visit to McMillan, students examined an earthworm, flowers and plant leaves under a digital microscope probe connected to a laptop computer, among other activities.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America has its own summer program, begun last year, called Summer Brain Gain. The program, now in about 1,500 clubs nationwide, delivers themed activities aimed at maintaining math and reading skills. They're intended to be fun, so kids don't realize they're learning.

The Boys & Girls Club's Carter Lake site has been using the full program for the first time this summer. Other sites are piloting it.

"The goal of Summer Brain Gain is to make sure they (kids) haven't lost anything over the summer," said Lindsey McCloud, program facilitator for the Carter Lake site. "But we're hoping for gains. That's our goal."

An average of 20 kids participate in the program on weekdays this summer from 9 a.m. to noon. They then merge with children participating in the rest of the club's daytime activities. Participants at the national level have seen learning gains rather than losses, according to officials from the national organization.

Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands also has its own Readers to Leaders literacy program, begun in 2012, that runs year-round. About 700 youngsters have completed the program, which assesses their skills before and after the program.

Julie Frizzell, the local clubs' reading program director, said the organization has seen a 40 percent increase on average in reading rate and a 7 percent increase in reading accuracy, according to tests before and after.

Power Scholars also uses before and after assessments. According to a report from the 2014 program, all scholars in kindergarten through second grade gained a month of early literacy skills, while those in grades three through eight picked up 1.6 months of skills. Youngsters who went into the program performing in the lowest quartile on an assessment gained 2.5 months each of math and reading skills.

"We're really serving the kids who need this time for learning the most," said Michael Sikora, BELL's director of communications.

DeJuan Reddick, program lead for Power Scholars in Omaha, said Omaha is the only participating city where the program is focused on middle school. In others, it's largely directed at elementary grades. Up to 80 students have participated, with an average of about 60. Plans call for expanding it next year on the local and national levels.

The six-week program, which wraps up this week, runs from 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and includes breakfast, community time with speakers on topics such as social media, and academics, which are tied to state standards.

Groups rotate through enrichment activities that range from financial literacy to basketball skills. There's time for physical activity. The program also includes college and career preparation, plus field trips. On Friday, they trekked to UNL.

Students are called scholars, which is intended to get them thinking and acting ahead about the importance of preparing for their futures.

"A lot of kids have had that ‘aha' moment," he said.

That even goes for fractions.

"I feel like I kind of understand them now," said Om, before heading back into McMillan's gym to finish his dodgeball game.