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Tampa Bay Times: Power Scholars Academy helps stem the summer slide

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AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Beth Flynn works on addition problems with Olgaliss Vargas, 6, during the summer enrichment program held at Gulfside Elementary School in Holiday. Photos by Michele Miller | Times

By Michele Miller, Times Staff Writer

Holiday, FL - Wednesday, August 6, 2014 - Iris Garmendiz, 7, loves school so much that she was more than happy to spend part of her summer break in a classroom working on math problems.

"I love all these days - it's awesome," she said, sitting at a desk with pencil in hand and smiling brightly. "We get to go back to school. We get to have so much fun. We do lots of cool stuff."

Iris was one of 90 students who attended a free summer enrichment program called "Power Scholars Academy" at Gulfside Elementary School.

The cool stuff she's talking about included learning how to swim and going on field trips to Lowry Park Zoo, the Dalí Museum and the Clearwater Aquarium. But it also allowed for a strong academic focus that had some crowing about the results.

"Their confidence is growing and they're already doing first grade work," said Gulfside teacher Shannon Bora, who served as classroom teacher for Iris and 16 other rising first graders.

On one morning, her students practiced addition and worked on something called phonemic awareness - being able to hear, recognize and manipulate sounds in spoken words, an essential step in learning how to read. In an adjacent building, rising third-graders honed reading comprehension skills while creating a graphic organizer (storyboard) for a book they had read. That was followed by a math activity creating polygons out of toothpicks and pastel-colored mini marshmallows. Then it was off to lunch.

Afternoons for all scholars were spent working on hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and art enrichment activities. Leadership skills were also weaved into the curriculum throughout the day with prizes given out for stellar behavior. There was time for recess and some students hopped a bus for swimming lessons at the North Pinellas YMCA. Friday was designated for educational field trips.

"I like it a lot - especially the STEM and the art," said Elijah Peralta, 8, as he stuck another marshmallow on a red toothpick to create a three-dimensional trapezoid. "It's great because you're making it and you get to eat it."

If it sounds like a fine blend of summer camp and school, it is,

"It is awesome," said second-grade teacher Jennifer Caldarelli. "They are totally engaged and they come early every day."

And it just might be the perfect mix to stop the summer slide - not something that takes place on a playground, but in the minds of children who, over the summer break, lose some of what they learned during the previous school year.

"It's very valuable for the children," said Lindsey Dubock, teacher of rising third-graders. "We're keeping them engaged in academics, which helps them keep the gains they've made all year. "

When a new school year rolls around, time is typically spent on reviewing work from the previous year, Dubock said. "If they've already been in the program, they're ready. They haven't hit the pause button and because they've been immersed in academics, they'll be ready to rock and roll when school starts."

Power Scholars is the brainchild of two national nonprofit organizations - BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life) and the YMCA of the USA.

The collaboration uses BELL's education model to keep underprivileged students engaged in summer learning and enrichment activities at YMCA sites and partner schools in eight locations throughout the country.

Gulfside Elementary and the YMCA of the Suncoast partnered for the program that was funded by a YMCA grant and community donations. The "Be Water Smart From the Start" swim program for 18 selected students was sponsored by the YMCA and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Stephen Hutchinson, senior program director for school-age programs for YMCA of the Suncoast, first learned about Power Scholars in March.

"We absolutely wanted to jump on board," Hutchinson said. "I like this partnership. I like that we're playing a part in bridging the achievement gap."

Chris Clayton, who has served as principal at Gulfside since 1993, knows well the uphill climb for kids who, because of their circumstances, end up lagging behind. At his Title 1 school, 80 percent of students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meal program.

"When our kids aren't engaged in something productive, they fall behind," he said, adding that kids living in poverty don't have the same opportunities as those who are better off. "They don't keep learning at summer camp or visit museums on family vacations. … There's a big (learning) gap. They experience it each and every summer, and each year that gap widens."

Bridging that gap means meeting those kids on their level, Clayton said, adding every scholar receives a certificate and four books at a special awards ceremony. Students also took an end-of-program assessment to map their summer strides.

"This program builds confidence in our scholars," Clayton said. "They have more of an 'I can do it' attitude. They are learning something meaningful and are being empowered. I really anticipate them coming back as stronger students when school starts."

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