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Lake Norman News from the Charlotte Observer: BELL mixes lessons, fun

The six-week BELL summer program sounds a lot like school.

The teachers are certified; students study math, literacy, science, art and music, and their academic progress is assessed regularly.

But teachers have infused enough fun that its elementary scholars don't mind spending six weeks of their summer in classrooms.

"It's like school, but it's still like a camp-school," said Nakia Gamble, lead teacher for the BELL program at First Presbyterian Church. "It's not just sitting at a desk and being quiet."

The BELL program - Building Educated Leaders for Life - is a national initiative to keep at-risk students from falling into a "summer slide," in which they forget what they've learned during the school year. The program was first held in Charlotte in 2009, and this year the city is hosting programs at 11 sites - the largest number so far.

Without programs like BELL, at-risk students often stay home all summer; many parents can't afford camps and other summer enrichment programs.

The BELL program is free for students. Its funding, which includes pay for teachers, comes from host sites and other sources.

In Charlotte, the program focuses on elementary students zoned to attend West Charlotte High School. Many of the programs' activities are at the schools the students attend during the school year; First Presbyterian is one of two non-school locations.

About 60 students are bused to the uptown church from Westerly Hills Academy each morning. They eat breakfast and lunch at the church and attended classes in the church's educational wing.

Erick Wannamaker, 11, said he likes that the teachers are so encouraging. The program's five certified teachers work at Westerly Hills during the school year, where the students also attend.

"We learn about different subjects and things we didn't know before," Wannamaker said.

Jashaunti Faulkner, 9, said she's appreciative of the free education and free meals she gets at during the BELL program every day.

On a recent afternoon, students divided into art, science and music classes. The youngest students learned about Justin Timberlake and popular music. Others drew portraits in art class or conducted a science experiment.

The teachers are assisted each day by volunteers from the community and First Presbyterian. Congregation members also help at Westerly Hills Elementary during the academic year.

"There are volunteers from the church here every day," Raukell Robinson said. "I think (the students) know people here care."

Students benefit from smaller classrooms and curriculum designed for them, Robinson said. They take fields trips, play outside and go to the Johnston YMCA once a week for swim lessons.

They also participate in community service projects. The scholars recently made 200 sandwiches for Urban Ministries.

"We wanted to do our part and teach what giving back is," Robinson said.


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