Summer Skills Academy provides academic boost

by: COURTESY PHOTO: CONNIE POTTER - Pre-schoolers Kimberly Velazquez (left) and Ariel Garcia-Gomez use an online library, which offers 4,000 titles in both English and Spanish. Every classroom at Fern Hill Elementary School in Forest Grove is bustling with children this summer. As the grade levels go up, less and less Spanish can be heard.

That's because at the Summer Skills Academy, migrant students gain confidence by learning English skills, reading, writing and math.

“They give you more things to believe in yourself here,” said 10-year-old Berenice Acosta, a student in one of the fourth-grade classes.

Acosta has been attending Summer Skills since second grade. She paused while writing a paragraph in her notebook to say the students learn more details on subjects than what’s covered during the school year.

“It’s more fun than normal school. We learn different things like past, present and future tense in English,” said Karla Andrade, 10, a fourth grader. “I like it because I learn new things.”

Mondays through Thursdays, pre-K to fourth-grade students spend six hours a day learning at Fern Hill Elementary. Fifth- to seventh-graders spend four hours at Neil Armstrong Middle School.

This summer there are 322 students, which is pretty standard, said Leonard Terrible, the English language development lead administrator for Forest Grove School District.

“We have a 92 percent attendance rate a day, which is really good for summer school,” said Terrible, who has been with the program for three years.

If students don’t show up one day, the secretary calls to make sure everything is all right. That's one way staff stays involved with the students, Terrible said.

The program is deeply connected to the regular school year, he said — especially through the teachers, who all work in district schools. Students are matched with a teacher who will be at their home school during the year “so they build a relationship with someone in the building,” said lead teacher Osvaldo Garcia-Contreras, who teaches math at Neil Armstrong from September to June. “It’s early exposure to what they get in the fall.”

Like the other Summer Skills teachers, Garcia-Contreras has at least 10 years of teaching experience under his belt. “We insist teachers are paid the same rate as during the school year," Terrible said. "We only have the best.”

Perla Rodriguez, principal of Echo Shaw Elementary School, teaches a class of third-graders. In one recent class, she taught fractions using data about high school dropout rates for Latinos.

“I’ve learned that more Latinos are dropping out of high school,” said Jesus Hernandez, 9, one of Rodriguez’s students. “I’m not going to. It’s important.”

The summer class size averages around 15 students with one teacher, one instructional assistant and one volunteer. The volunteers are either middle- or high-school students. The lower grades have bi-lingual teachers or assistants, but as the students' age rises, so do their English skills. By second grade Spanish is rarely spoken.

“I feel like I can help them out, but they start getting it fast. It’s a good feeling to see them learning,” said bilingual volunteer Karen Sayago, 17, who will be a senior at Forest Grove High School in the fall. “Helping the kids out is fun.”

One class in particular is younger than the rest. The children are mostly 3-year-olds who will attend Echo Shaw in the fall of 2014.

“The purpose of this class is to target skills and expose them to things they need to be successful in the classroom,” Terrible explained. Some children, for example, come into kindergarten not knowing basic letters, numbers or shapes.

From third grade on, the curriculum ties into the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) test. Teachers aim to prepare students to pass the English Language Proficiency Assessment.

For those heading to middle school in the fall, a special transition preparation class focuses on organizational skills and time management.

Sixth- and seventh-grade classes run on a rotation, seeing different teachers for different classes, to match the middle school system.

“We want the kids here to learn. We aren’t a babysitting service,” said Terrible. “We try to give them every opportunity.”

Grants to fund this program are specific. The program taps into Title 1C Migrant Education funds, allowing migrant children to have appropriate education services. Those funds are supplemented with Title 3 funding so English As A Second Language students can attend as well.

As with the regular school year, recess is the students' favorite part of Summer Skills. But many appreciate the academics as well.

“It makes school during the year easier,” Acosta said.

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