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WilmingtonBiz: How We Are Getting Behind Students So They Don't End Up Behind Bars

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By Connie Majure-Rhett

It's difficult for me to see a child in middle school as a criminal in the embryonic phase. I know that we are shaped by our surroundings and influenced by our role models, and taking the wrong path can begin at an early age. But I can't help the innocence and potential in children, even if they are already showing signs that they aren't going to be the next Nobel laureate.

I started my career path as a teacher and that may be why I'm hesitant to take off my rose-colored glasses where children are concerned. Although I'll admit those glasses became clouded many years ago when I discovered that one of my fourth-grade students was pregnant. That situation taught me that a young person's life can take a radical turn at any age. So I may have been more apt to understand and accept the realities tied to "summer slippage" when I was introduced to the topic last year.

Too often the time that children's lives take a radical turn is during the summer break from school, when young people have less guidance. This is especially true for those in low-income families. The reality is that there is a stark difference between summer breaks for middle- and upper-income families and those of limited financial means. Children of these families typically aren't visiting museums, attending educational camps, going on trips with their parents, and may not have reading habits reinforced. The result is what is called summer slippage. On average, low-income students lose more than two months in reading achievement during the summer break from school, while their middle-class peers move ahead one month.

This doesn't seem devastating on the surface, until you realize that the achievement gap increases every year, with the passing of every summer. By the time low-income students reach middle school, that gap can be as much as three years. As a result, low-income youth are more likely to drop out of high school, which leads to poor job prospects and, many times, to criminal activity.

Because the crime rate can affect economic development (specifically attracting and retaining businesses) and quality of life, the Chamber's Cape Fear Future initiative and the Chamber Foundation became interested in the topic. In January we hosted an event called Crime Hurts Kids … and Business, where we unveiled an initiative to tackle the issue of summer slippage by helping fund a summer enrichment program for low-income, at-risk students in downtown Wilmington. That goal was achieved, and the Youth Enrichment Zone (YEZ) Summer Initiative launched on June 23 with 60 rising seventh- and eighth-grade students who demonstrate high need and at-risk behaviors, and are underperforming academically.

For five weeks (June 23-July 25), the students participated in the Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) program at D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy for four days a week, six hours each day. Academic instruction in the mornings was reinforced by hands-on enrichment courses in the afternoons. Each Thursday, program participants attended culturally enriching field trips, such as going to WonderWorks in Myrtle Beach, and engaged in community service projects. Breakfast and lunch were also provided to all participants to help ensure a focus on learning.

BELL's programs are proven to boost student achievement and narrow the achievement gap. On average, students who participate in the BELL program during the summer gain 2.4 months of reading skills, instead of losing 2 months … a 4.4 month difference if they had not attended the program! Math skills are affected even more, gaining 3.9 months instead of losing 2.

I am proud to announce that the YEZ Summer Initiative won three awards in the first two weeks from the state BELL administration: Highest Scholar Attendance, the Family First Award, and Site of the Week. These accolades are a reflection of the dedication and commitment that everyone involved consistently demonstrated.

I visited the program in its third week and saw a group of 60 eager, attentive children who may have had their lives changed this summer. They will go back to school better prepared, more able to face educational challenges, and with more confidence that they can do the work. In short, they are more likely to stay in school.

I found myself drawing a comparison to my visit to Trask Middle in the early summer when the school hosted our Cape Fear Future investors who funded the Project Lead The Way (PLTW) program, which will be the topic of my next Insights column. The STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiative was so successful its first year that the school system is expanding PLTW to additional schools for the 2014-15 school year. Parents love it and the students love it even more. I saw the excitement on their faces as they showed off their projects and knew that the stories I'd heard about them asking to skip P.E. and lunch so they could have additional time at PLTW were true.

The visit to Trask to see these budding engineers and scientists was one of those feel-good moments that don't come often enough. But it was the visit to D.C. Virgo that reinforced the notion that positive intervention can change lives. My calling took me in a different direction from teaching, but the work the Chamber is doing to improve education is quickly becoming some of the most satisfying of my career. The business community is making a difference, and I thank our members and investors for their support. Although I wish at times that I could still wear the rose-colored glasses of the newbie teacher that I once was, believing that every child can be saved, I'm secure in the notion that many more of our local at-risk children are now in the embryonic phase of becoming high school graduates, not criminals.

About the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce
The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce is the largest membership-based business association in Southeastern North Carolina. The Chamber's mission is to ensure economic prosperity throughout our region. This is accomplished by: creating a diverse, inclusive organization that serves as a strong voice for businesses in the Greater Wilmington area; offering unique membership benefits, services and education; and challenging government officials to address long term community and business interests.

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