Summer ‘school’ enriches 5-Towns

BRISTOL — Just because the Mount Abraham Unified School District’s summer Expanded Learning Program (ELP) will not end with a battery of standardized testing doesn’t mean there’s not a whole lot of learning happening there.
“The goal is to combat the summer learning slide without kids perceiving that academic things are happening,” said the program’s director, Mandy Chesley-Park. “That way they can still feel like they have their ‘summer.’”
At summer ELP, karaoke becomes a vehicle for literacy, Frisbee golf a chance to learn and practice counting. With 135 registered students, the program is bigger than some of the 5-Town elementary schools.
“We’re basically a pop-up school,” Chesley-Park said.
In morning learning sessions during the five-week program, which runs from July 2 to Aug. 3, rising first- through seventh-graders from all of the 5-Town schools — Monkton Central, Starksboro’s Robinson Elementary, New Haven’s Beeman Elementary, Bristol Elementary and Lincoln Community schools, plus Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School — focus on math, art or wellness/recreation.
So far this summer, third- and fourth-grade math leader Dylan Sparks has taught his students how to build fires, make jewelry and measure ingredients and determine ratios for cooking.
“It’s important for them to understand how things are made and that math is used in the design of everything,” Sparks said.
When they finish building their spinning tops, Sparks’s students will have been exposed to — and made use of — fundamental geometric concepts.
First- and second-grade art leader Anna Smith guides her students through creative exploration.
In an exercise focused on abstract art, she played sounds for the students and challenged them to draw whatever came to mind — as long as it didn’t directly reference the sound itself (drawings made to the sound of rain, for instance, were not allowed to feature rain).
“I asked them, ‘What does this make you think of or feel?’” Smith said. “And they could articulate that. ‘This sound reminds me of making dinner,’ one student said. Then they would draw the feeling of food.”
On a day when rain kept students indoors, fifth-through-seventh-grade wellness leader Jessica LaPlante organized a team-building game in the hallway. One by one, through trial and error, students discovered a hidden path across a “labyrinth,” which was represented by a grid on the floor.
Afternoon workshops divide students into hives of collaboration:
•  Theater students learn set design, makeup, costuming and stage management in preparation for an end-of-program performance of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
•  Innovative Art students design gardens that make sounds, and repurpose toys using circuitry and computer code.
•  Recreation programs teach positive sportsmanship with games of Ultimate Frisbee and Capture the Flag.
•  Robotics students learn to design and code their own robots, as well as to solve problems using robotics equipment.
The Robotics program was made possible by New Haven resident Ron Yara, an electrical engineer who spent his career in the Silicon Valley semiconductor industry. Yara donated $15,000 worth of equipment and tools to ELP last year, and he also teaches in the program, which has been so successful that Mount Abe middle school has begun to integrate it into the curriculum, Chesley-Park said. (Pictured: Max Goodfellow of New Haven remotely controls his custom-made robot. Independent photo/Trent Campbell.)
Summer ELP has also partnered with Middlebury Indoor Tennis to teach kids on-court basics.
Next year, a program that’s in full swing after school at Mount Abe may make its summer debut. ELP is partnering with Middlebury Community Music Center (MCMC) to form a string orchestra directed by local musician and teacher Ron White.
MCMC encourages students to try a variety of string instruments and is looking forward to expanding the orchestra in the future.
“We believe in the power of ensemble playing to activate new kinds of learning and partnership for students,” said MCMC director Sadie Brightman.
Tennis and orchestra are just two examples of how the Expanded Learning Program continues to expand.
“We never plateau,” said Chesley-Park. “Every year we add something new.”
This year, the biggest addition to the summer program was a full-time schedule. Parents now have the option of enrolling their children from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
“Our family has thoroughly enjoyed the addition of the ELP program into our lives,” said Bristol resident (and former Bristol Elementary School board member) Ali Gibson, whose son, Sammy, a rising first-grader, is enrolled in the program. “Every day after camp he returns brimming with fun stories of great counselors he’s befriended, art projects he’s been working on and math games he’s been playing. He arrives home pleasantly exhausted and satisfied with summery experiences, ready to wake up and do it all over again the next day.”
Founded by Chesley-Park and MAUSD Assistant Superintendent Katrina DiNapoli (who was at the time assistant principal at Bristol Elementary), ELP is funded by a grant from the 21st Century Learning Centers Program, as well as money allocated in the MAUSD budget.
The summer program charges $180 a week for a full-time student, but scholarships are available. No family will be turned away, officials said.
“We tell parents, ‘Come, and we’ll figure it out,’” said Chesley-Park.
KIDS BURN OFF some energy playing kickball in the Mount Abe gym.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
MAUSD provides free breakfast, lunch and snacks.
When summer comes to an end, ELP will go into high gear organizing after-school enrichment programs.
But the summer students aren’t looking that far ahead. They’re still learning the program’s “theme song,” — a version of pop singer Bruno Mars’s “Count on Me,” with lyrics rewritten by musician and theater director Jennifer Allred and her son Ethan. At morning meeting every day the kids practice along with a recording of Ethan singing and playing his guitar:
“You can count on me at ELP — I’ll be there, so leave your worries at the door. We’ll grow and learn together, find out what we’re made of. From math to art we’re heart to heart, we’ll be there — we can make the summer so much more.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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