Rural summer programs seek to connect schools and families

On Board Online • August 8, 2022

By Merri Rosenberg
Special Correspondent

Before retiring from public service in 2021, Nita Lowey spent 32 years representing portions of Westchester County in Congress. Widely regarded as an effective legislator, she became the first woman to chair the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives in 2018.

Now a federal education grant program bears her name: the Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The grants help states, including New York, create academic enrichment opportunities for children during non-school hours, including during summers.

New York's allocation is being used to help students recover from the pandemic, according to Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young, Jr. "These grants will enable our schools to engage with local partners to expand enrichment activities and services to meet the needs of the families in their communities."

Needy schools are targeted, including many of the state's rural schools.

"For rural schools trying to recover from being underfunded by the state and from the pandemic, [these grants] are incredibly flexible," said David Little, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State. "One school may have a real need for after-school [programs] for learning loss. Another school might want a summer program . This highlights rural schools' needs financially and programmatically."

A lot of creativity is required to come up with a grant application that wins approval from the State Education Department because a key element is partnering with a community organization or institution of higher learning, Little said. "It's much more difficult in rural areas where you don't have a YMCA or other partner," he said.

Below are some examples of how rural districts have used and are continuing to use these five-year grants:

The Andover Central School District in Allegany County plans to continue the enrichment and extended day programs already in place from the last grant cycle. Superintendent Derek Schuelein said the district's six-week summer program includes activities such as a Lego League, coding, gardening, arts, cultural and academic achievement and swimming. There is a half day of programming for students in grades pre-K through 8 on Mondays through Thursdays, and Fridays are dedicated to field trips to destinations such as the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

The grant also provides funds for the district to offer babysitting certification and lifeguard/first responder training and certification, which enhance the community's engagement with the district.

"We're a rural, poor district, and that presents a lot of challenges," said Dr. Schuelein, noting that half of the district's 321 students qualify as economically disadvantaged. "As a small rural school, the school is the center of the community . Extracurricular activities are a way to keep them invested in the school."

In the 209-student Bridgehampton School District in Suffolk County, Superintendent Mary Kelly said after-school and summer school enrichment programs focus on the arts. Partners include museums, cultural sites and community arts organizations.

"There will be a teaching artist-in-residence," said Dr. Kelly. "There will also be specific interventions for ELL students and students with disabilities . This creates opportunities across the curriculum. Coming out of post-COVID, there's a strong, steady demand for it. We have significant interest from our families."

Bridgehampton is taking a multifaceted approach to improving student engagement, including activities like game design and STEAM and literary initiatives. Dr. Kelly hopes they'll see more higher-order critical thinking and creativity from students.

"There will also be the opportunity to travel, go on field trips and participate in travel soccer team," said Kelly. "This gives access to families who might not have had those opportunities."

In Sullivan County's Fallsburg Central School District, Superintendent Ivan Katz said most of their grant will be spent on literacy skills, numeracy and academic intervention. "It's a lot of small items," he said.

The district has 1,400 students, and about 71% are from economically disadvantaged families. "Fallsburg is the poorest district in the county," Katz said. "Poverty's tentacles go in different directions."

The goal is to improve academic performance and provide activities for student engagement through project-based learning. "We want to increase student and parent involvement," said Katz. "It's all about academic improvement. We can't do that unless we get families involved at a higher level. We want to connect our parents and students to the school community."

Last February, for example, the district sponsored an ice-skating event to entice students and their families to engage with the school community.

Margo Martin, superintendent of the Groton Central School District in Tompkins County and parts of Cortland and Cayuga counties, said the grant is targeting ways to "address learning gaps in our schools and driving some family and engagement opportunities," with a focus on STEALTH (STEAM and Health).

The Groton community lacks an emergency health care center as well as a grocery store, Martin said. Issues include "high obesity rates and high vaping among teens," she said. "Given the nature of our needs, we're using health, and those interested in health sciences, to revitalize our community."

For Matthew Barr, superintendent of the 833-student Lyons Central School District in Wayne County, challenges include the lack of "quality after school and summer programming." The district plans to use the grant to "create programming that aligns with school day initiatives," as well as work with community partners to support "our at-risk youth and . our families."

Among the district's goals are increasing student achievement and attendance, and decreasing behavioral issues, Barr said. Toward that end, the district plans to collaborate with community and regional agencies. Cornell Cooperative Extension will provide programming that will include physical activity, nutrition, healthy cooking and support for STEM workshops. Similarly, a collaboration with Wayne CAP will provide some work placement opportunities for students as well as a Youth Empowerment Program offering peer support and behavioral health support.

In the Roxbury Central School District, located in Delaware County, focus is on after-school and summer programs, combining skill building with activities like arts and crafts, cooperative games and STEM. Superintendent Jeffrey J. Bennett said that nearly half of the district's 250 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

"Our goal this year is to work with the Roxbury arts group," said Bennett. "We'll bring in community partners."

During the summer of 2021, students participated in a production of "Charlotte's Web," had the chance to garden with the local Cornell Cooperative Extension, visit a pig farm and explore the nearby state park. "We wanted to make school fun," said Bennett.

About a third of the elementary school students have signed up. The district carefully tracks attendance, and the reading teacher works with students who would benefit from additional support.

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