It's no secret that many students in Hartford are struggling academically. "Last year, I was really bad at multiplication and division and my reading level was down," says 11-year-old DaVasia Knowlin, who then participated in an innovative pilot program in July, the result of a partnership between the YMCA of Greater Hartford and BELL, a Boston-based non-profit, designed to attack "summer learning loss," a problem noted in some low-income children in particular. Now, studies are showing a significant improvement in students' summer retention, as well as parent involvement in academics. Community leaders are on a mission to raise funds to widen the Y-BELL effort.
"If a child is not on grade-level by third grade and that child is living in poverty, that child is 14 times as likely to drop out of school which is unacceptable to us," says President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Hartford James Morton. "We know that urban communities, in particular, are suffering with achievement gap issues where some children are doing more poorly that others and that's not going to get better unless we focus on it." BELL reports, based on diagnostic reading and math assessments taken before and after the program, students in grades K-4 gained 5.7 months of grade-equivalent literacy skills and 10.7 months in math. "Those kinds of gains are just remarkable," says Morton, noting this model also addresses the dropout rate. "This program works, so we want to serve an additional two to three hundred children in our own community."
The six-week session, attended by 76 students from the Simpson-Waverly Classic Magnet School, ran five days a week from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. In the morning, students received 90 minutes of rigorous reading lessons, followed by a similar tutorial about mathematics, run by specially trained teachers, recruited by BELL (experiencebell.org), which stands for Building Educated Leaders for Life. The YMCA took over in the afternoon, providing kids with academic enrichment, presented in a "hands-on" way. "We'll have a regimen like hip-hop, earth studies, science or art," says 9-year-old Mekhi Awuah. Knowlin enjoyed the acting workshops.
Inspired by the results and the need for effective action, Morton is trying to raise more than $400,000 through foundations and private donors to ensure more Hartford kids find the academic success they deserve: "It's going to take some work and we're up for the task," he said. Knowlin wants other kids to know the program was not a typical "summer school". Rather, it was stimulating and fun. "Since BELL helped me out at school, I'm above grade level and my math is awesome," she says with a smile. "After school, I'm going straight to college…I want to go to UCONN and I really want to be a veterinarian. I love pets."
For donation information, contact the YMCA of Greater Hartford's Development Department at (860) 522-9622.