Last spring, organizers of Y-BELL, an innovative, educational program for Hartford's youth, were trying to raise money to help more kids benefit from this experience designed to combat summer learning loss. "We were able to reach our goal," says James Morton, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Hartford that is partnered with BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), a Boston-based nonprofit, to now serve 275 children. During a pilot run last year, the 75 students who took part showed significant improvement in reading and math. Kids in grades K-4 gained 5.7 months of grade-equivalent literacy skills and 10.7 months in math. Parents are seeing a sparkle in their youngster's eyes, as they become increasingly excited about learning.
"I heard about the gains and I said, 'That's perfect, that's what I'm looking for,'" says Dana Thomas, whose three children, ages 5, 6 and 8, are writing stories and doing science experiments during the six-week session, ending Friday. "It's very important that they have something constructive to do over the summer." Programs at the Dr. Frank T. Simpson-Waverly School in Hartford and the Anna E. Norris Elementary School in East Hartford include rigorous academic instruction in the morning, complemented by fun, STEM-based activities in the afternoon. "They're doing dance competitions! My kids didn't dance before now but now they're coming home, dancing, having a good time," says Thomas.
Last Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle, along with Connecticut politicians, visited the classrooms. Studies show without access to summer learning opportunities, such as camp and visits to museums, kids from low-income households can fall behind their peers. "We think there's something magical that happens with our children and for our teachers who are working in the program…and we just want to find out what that magic is so we can replicate it," says Morton, noting educators want to extend the success into the school year. "We've got a mission and a vision to help every child reach his or her fullest potential." Y-BELL Power Scholars Academy is free, due to donations from groups such as SBM Charitable Foundation, LEGO Children's Fund and H.A. Vance Foundation.
Morton hopes to increase the program by 150 children each of the next two to three summers: "We're running with it," he says. "We feel we owe it to the children who live in the city." Mekhi Awuah, a 9-year-old returning scholar, is happy to be back. He is "finding the genius within", feeling confident about his academics: "I get compliments from the teachers." And, Thomas is seeing her kids' passions evolve: "My kindergartner, she's loving to read now. She's like, 'Mom, let me read this book to you.'"
For more on the program, see Sarah's report from March.