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Journal Inquirer: Summer program seeks to offer East Hartford students learning, fun

By Steven Crighton, Journal Inquirer of Manchester, The Associated Press

EAST HARTFORD, CT - July 27, 2014 - While some students might be quick to put the last year's lessons to the back of their minds in favor of summertime fun, a new program at Anna Norris Elementary School is looking to offer kids both.

The Y-BELL program is hosted and funded by the YMCA of Greater Hartford, in a partnership with the local school system and BELL, or Building Educated Leaders for Life.

This year, 150 Anna Norris students are participating in the program, which has them back at the Remington Road school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

According to Sonia Toledo, the vice president of youth development for the YMCA of Greater Hartford, the program combines group-based academic instruction focused on math and literacy with hands-on enrichment activities, like field trips, service projects, and sports, in order to reinforce what students have learned in a fun environment.

One such "enrichment activity," Toledo said, is a field day every Friday in which students play games like three-legged races and egg tosses that aim to promote teamwork.

She said the program's primary goal is to combat the significant learning loss that occurs during the summer when kids are out of school, which is especially prevalent for students from poor families.

"We want the students to maintain the knowledge they've gained during the school year," Toledo said. "When they take 2½ months off, it can really be a step back."

School Superintendent Nathan Quesnel said the school system was "thrilled" at the opportunity to partner with the YMCA to help combat learning loss.

"Typically in the summer, you're losing knowledge," Quesnel said. "What they're doing is helping the kids gain knowledge. That's what really sold me."

The YMCA first hosted the program last year at the Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School in Hartford, where it proved to be a success. The YMCA conducted a study that found that the school's 76 BELL scholars achieved an average 5.7-month gain in reading skills, and an average 10.7-month gain in math.

Though the YMCA's primary focus is on maintaining what students have already learned, Toledo said, the program seeks to teach new things when possible. Of the 150 students in the program, 80 are taking part in swimming lessons, which began this week.

"It's a vital skill that could save their lives," Toledo said. "A lot of kids simply don't have the resources to learn."

This year's program will cost about $150,000, but it is free of charge to students thanks to a host of donors, Toledo said. Donors include the SBM Foundation and the LEGO Children's Fund.

She said the program is a "tremendous positive experience" for students so far, adding that school officials have been very supportive.

"They want to see us back here next year," Toledo said.

School Principal Edward Orszulak was similarly positive about the school's newfound relationship with the YMCA through the program.

"This is providing our students with a tremendous opportunity," Orszulak said.

While it hopes to maintain the program in East Hartford, the YMCA is also looking to expand the service to other schools in the area that face similarly tremendous achievement gaps, like schools in Vernon.

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