Marin Independent Journal: BELL program at San Rafael's Davidson Middle School aims to close achievement gap
Photo by Frankie Frost - Marin Independent Journal
By Janis Mara
Published Thursday, July 9, 2015
Estefi Mejia, 13, whipped her cursor from side to side in a graphic box on her computer screen Wednesday, filling it with what looked like confetti. Then she poised the cursor on an icon with a rainbow of colors, turning the confetti pink, purple, orange and lavender.
Mejia is one of 200 students participating in a five-week summer school program offered by Building Educated Leaders for Life, a Boston educational nonprofit, at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael.
In her next move, Mejia, who is enrolled in an afternoon coding class, began to create shapes in the graphic box. She keyed in "rect," for "rectangle," and the rectangle immediately materialized in the box.
"I chose the coding class because I wanted to do something new. This is the first time they had coding," said Mejia, a San Rafael resident who will enter eighth grade in the fall. She has attended the BELL summer program all four years it has been available at Davidson.
The BELL program, administered on the campus by Tom Kordick, a history teacher at the school, aims to close the so-called achievement gap. The "achievement gap" refers to the difference between the scores of children from lower-income families and those with higher incomes, a national phenomenon.
Marin children in poor black and Latino families have lower math and English test scores and are less likely to have access to preschool, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data and state health surveys by advocacy group Marin Kids released this year.
"Research shows that a lack of learning opportunities outside of school, particularly a lack of summer learning, causes up to two-thirds of the academic achievement gap between low-income kids and their higher-income peers," said Kris Murray, executive director of BELL in California.
Back in Mejia's classroom, Emma Savino, an assistant teacher, circulated from one octagonal table to the next, keeping an eye on the approximately 29 students' progress.
"They're learning to create animation," said Savino, an assistant teacher for the class. "They start with drawing shapes, then put color in the shapes and move the shapes around. Then they start doing actual animations." The coding class was designed by the Kahn Academy in Mountain View, a company that offers practice exercises, instructional videos and a personalized learning dashboard so learners can study at their own pace.
Students in the BELL program at Davidson range from entering sixth- to ninth-graders, Murray said. They get small-group instruction in reading and math in the morning. In the afternoon, they attend whatever classes they choose at the beginning of the five-week session, including choices such as art, PE and coding.
"We help kids performing below grade level make up lost ground," Murray said. Most of the students in the Davidson program are from that school, with the rest, about 20 percent, from Venetia Valley Elementary School.
Students are tested at the beginning and end of the program with computer-adaptive STAR Assessments, built for measuring progress against the Common Core State Standards, Murray said.
The cost of the summer program at Davidson is around $189,000. San Rafael City Schools pays $149,965 of the tab and BELL pays $138,523, according to Christina Perrino, spokeswoman for San Rafael City Schools.
A little less than half the students in Mejia's class are girls. A few buildings away, the other coding class had 14 girls out of 22 students.
While the students in Mejia's class sat at five separate octagonal tables, those in the second section sat side-by-side at long tables. One student in a hoodie sat hunched over the keyboard, white earbuds in his ears, hands folded, intent on the screen.
The individualized animation instruction begins with a video. The student then gets a challenge to answer in which he or she uses the skills learned in the video.
"Students from families with higher socioeconomic status can go to camp and make (educational) gains during the summer," said Anne Carmin, the teacher of the second coding class. Things are different for those with lower socioeconomic status, she said.
"They (BELL) make it fun, a little bit like camp. I think it's great that BELL gives them this opportunity," Carmin said.
"This partnership sets a great example of what can happen when school districts partner with other agencies," said Mary Jane Burke, Marin County superintendent of schools. "What is happening for the young people at Davidson should be our community expectation for all students. We are looking forward to seeing this program expand in our community in 2016."