It's mid-morning on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and the Barnes Butte Elementary field turf is hopping with activity.
One group of youngsters are engaged in a spirited tug-o-war, boys versus girls, as a high school-age volunteer looks on and supervises the competition. Not far across the field, kindergartners dart back and forth across a cooling spray hose, loving every moment of their Sharks and Minnows game.
Inside the school building, third graders are engrossed in a project to build the best tent or port in which Max, from the "Where the Wild Things Are" book, can hide. They are armed with a variety of crafty materials carefully organized prior to that morning by high school volunteers and summertime instructors.
All this activity, and plenty more, is just another day of Summer Blast, the newly launched elementary-level summer school program.
Trying something new
Summer school is not new to Crook County School District. Several years ago, the Kiwanis Club of Prineville pitched the idea for a program to help keep struggling students from suffering the summer slide. In the years since, the program has served a total of more than 400 students and produced encouraging academic results.
That summer slide potential was significantly amplified this past school year as the school district navigated different COVID-19 requirements that kept kids out of school buildings at different times and limited instruction time.
So, when the time came to consider summer school, educators wanted to go bigger and better.
"We had a vision to turn education a little bit upside down," said Michelle Zistel, who is Barnes Butte's vice-principal during the school year.
"Summer school is a choice," added Jonny Oelkers, who is program coordinator for Grizzly Mountain Homelink, which was launched last fall. "So, we wanted it to be a choice that kids were glad they made if they came."
The two administrators joined forces with School District Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson and other educators and decided to launch a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camp that focused on hands-on learning and got kids outside and active.
"How can we make it so different that kids would be waiting at the door?" Zistel said of the thought process. "How can me make it so engaging and make it so different that it would draw people in?"
Program developers put together a video about the camp to share with students and waited to see who was interested. The response exceeded expectations.
"We got to 100, then 200, then 300, then 400, then 500, then 600," Zistel recalls. Suddenly, organizers were deciding they had to cap enrollment because the school building could only hold so many kids.
"We still have a waiting list because we have so many students who still want in," Zistel remarked.
Welcome to camp
Summer Blast leaders designed the program to resemble a camp setting while teaching kids basic STEM academics as well as the classic three R's. They call the classes squads and make a point of starting the day outdoors.
"We have a grid of (24) squares (one for each squad) painted on the ground," Oelkers said, adding that a stage was erected on the field as well. "We will do what I call mixers where every kid is doing something, talking to people, moving around. A lot of kids like to try some kind of a challenge."
The challenges vary from day to day, but they typically involve something physically active. Kids might be challenged to stand on one leg as long as they can, for example. And whoever wins lands one of many prizes displayed near the school library.
"Then we bring one kid from every squad up to play some kind of game," Oelkers continued, explaining that the students are chosen at random by the squad teacher. Kids cheer on their squad representative as they compete to win.
Once the outdoor activities conclude, the students head to the classroom to get started on their STEM activities.
The STEM activities are all thought out in advance and meticulously put together prior to the week they get taught. Leading that effort is Jen Hancock, a science teacher from the Bend-La Pine School District and an acquaintance of Zistel's.
"We hired her to come in and put together STEM lessons for us," Zistel explained.
That work is primarily completed in a modest-size conference room behind the library counter and the Summer Blast staff likens it to Santa's workshop. Each week, Hancock explains what the STEM lessons for each grade, then high school volunteers and squad leaders join her in assembling the pre-made boxes that go to each classroom. Typically, they involve students building something out of different materials from Legos to construction paper and many things in between.
"There is some reading built in around the themes they are studying and some nonfiction writing to keep a journal of what's going on, what they are learning," Oelkers said.
Zistel added that students in each grade are engaged in a STEM challenge throughout the week. They not only learn and create things, they compete. One week, students were involved in an egg drop challenge – the goal was to build a box around the egg that would protect it when dropped from the highest height.
It was a trial-and-error process where students would build a box and drop the egg, and if it broke, they would go back and try to figure out ways to improve the design.
Zistel believes this type of education gives kids a purpose in learning basic academic skills.
"If I'm a kindergartner and I have a purpose to know how to read this because I'm going to build something, it's going to inspire me to want to know how to read, it's going to inspire me to want to know how to do math. That's what I love about giving them the opportunity to practice their skills in real-life situations."
Under typical circumstances, the Crook County School District may not have had the resources to launch a program like Summer Blast, but special funding was provided for summer school programs, due to the effects of COVID on public education. Oelkers couldn't say if that funding would be available next summer, but one benefit of holding the program this year is it gives educators a feel for what resources are needed.
"We'll get to see what the costs are and what the outcomes are," he said. "Then I think the school board will be able to decide whether or not this is a priority based on what it costs and what it produces."
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