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New camp for underserved kids also serves research goal

  |   Kathryn Kao   |   Permalink   |   Service and Community

We often hear about one-shot outreach programs designed to give students an opportunity to give back to the community, but this summer, the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE)—an educational research and development center in the College of Education—is taking "outreach" to a whole new level.

For two weeks, 17 children from Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School in Athens participated in creative problem solving activities and explored the Athens community through the Future Innovators Elementary Summer Thinking Academy, or FIESTA.

Not only is this camp the first of what many hope will develop into an annual event, but it's also the first collaboration between CLASE and the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent development.

"It's that hybrid bank of experiences that can really launch a lot of great thinkers," said CLASE's executive director, Pedro Portes. "That's why we decided to work with Torrance."

Many of the children who attended the summer camp are also participants in a long-term tutoring and mentoring program Portes developed in collaboration with Scarlett Dunne, the principal of Oglethorpe Elementary. This coming semester will mark the fifth year of the partnership in which children of immigrants from Latin America are individually assigned a tutor or mentor to work with twice a week during the school year.

The goal is to offer these students extra academic learning time to promote higher-level thinking. According to Portes, children in grades three to five can already sense if they belong in the academic environment. As a result, it's important for these children to engage in the mentoring program so they can develop the confidence and disposition to try harder in school.

"These lived experiences have a cognitive, an emotional and a motivational component," said Portes, "After you start getting behind in school, you start doubting yourself as a learner and sometimes you become a little bit helpless."

When children of poverty stay in the public school system, they tend to fall further and further behind, said Portes. By high school, these kids can get so far behind that many end up dropping out.

In fact, inequality is often based on these separate educational tracks. For example, if students don't develop the necessary English skills early in life, it becomes harder for them to stay motivated and engaged in their work and studies. In contrast, advantaged students with access to the right resources and tools are more likely to move on to faster tracks.

Through the center's tutoring and mentoring program, children are exposed to different technologies and online resources they lack at home. With this extra attention, the center hopes to keep the children at grade level by building up their self-esteem and sense of belonging.

To measure these determining factors, CLASE collects data from several sources to look at both the kids' academic and affective development.

"We use these data to get a snapshot of our kids and where they are at this point in time," said graduate student and FIESTA camp program director Will Mira. "Our goal is to follow the same kids and look at their growth over time."

The center measures self-concept by using Susan Harter's Self-Perception Profile for Children. This scale analyzes self-esteem in six different domains: scholastic, competence, social competence, athletic competence, physical appearance, behavioral conduct and global self-worth. By answering specific questions, the center can better understand the children's sense of self-worth.

On the affective side, the center looks at the children's sense of belonging in school with a shortened version of the Psychological Sense of School Membership scale. This scale helps determine how comfortable the kids feel in the classroom and how well they feel they're being treated. CLASE also administers the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which requires kids to identify patterns and complete missing information using shapes or symbols. Essentially, the test looks at general intelligence, but is less culturally biased than a typical IQ test.

"We have evidence that by third, fourth or fifth grade, you can already tell who's going to drop out," said Portes. "To have an idea of where they are, at least in this little window of time, we need to continue this invitation for them to participate in the tutoring and mentoring program, and then assess them every year."

In addition to providing these students with a creative outlet, the FIESTA summer camp also helps alleviate seasonality issues. Oftentimes, when the school year ends, more advantaged children attend summer programs to maintain their studies so they can stay on track when school starts in the fall. However, children of poverty have fewer opportunities to do the same.

This is where the Torrance Center comes in. In 1974, E. Paul Torrance developed the Future Problem Solving program, now Future Problem Solving Program International, to engage students in the creative thinking process. According to his studies, kids who had a well-developed image of the future had greater creative achievements later in life.

While the program was designed to stimulate creative and critical thinking skills toward solving problems of the future, one component, called Community Problem Solving, focuses on applying those skills toward solving actual issues in the community.

With the help of two graduate students in the College of Education's gifted and creative education program, interim director of the Torrance Center Sarah Sumners decided to implement some community problem solving components in the summer camp's hands-on curriculum.

"We felt that since food and nutrition are so relevant to the culture of all students, that it was a natural fit for us to focus the curriculum on the topic of processed food for our collaboration with CLASE," said Sumners.

Camp guides Octavia Ferguson and Jeremy Piña modeled the curriculum after a program designed for the Torrance Center. Every morning, the two graduate students guided the kids through various problem-solving activities to develop their critical and creative thinking skills.

For one activity, the kids were asked to build a tree of ideas by writing their thoughts on a table covered with sticky notes. After breaking off into smaller groups and discussing a realistic way to raise awareness for the importance of vegetables, some of the more popular ideas generated by the children included a "Greasies vs. Veggies" video game, a Veggie March and Veggie Vines.

"The critical and creative thinking skills these kids are acquiring here is something they can continue to hold onto in the future," said Ferguson. "That's what CLASE is about … providing these kids an opportunity to use their strengths."

At the end of the day, these students are crucial in determining how teaching disadvantaged children should be structured in the classroom. Other elements of CLASE's research include training teachers to use the "instructional conversation" model to harness academic achievement in English-language learners as well as tapping into parental involvement.

Portes said he hopes to replace the desks-in-rows format of most classrooms today with an environment where kids can converse like adults in smaller groups. By conducting this research and reaching out to disadvantaged children, he said, more underserved kids will feel like they're being listened to in the classroom.

"When you improve teachers on abilities to reach all different kinds of learners, it's a win-win situation," he said. "The kids will feel more efficacious and attended to because they actually get to talk and articulate their growing language capacity as opposed to being talked down to."

Essentially, the FIESTA summer camp is an educational driving force that provides underserved children the opportunity to stay engaged in schoolwork and develop creative thinking skills, while simultaneously serving as a small component of the center's expansive research program.

"We focus directly on providing what we used to call outreach to the community," he said. "But it's outreach with a research and development agenda."

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