Kids on Campus
by Carl Hoffman
Things are looking up for Nicole Dearth. The nine-year-old is three-quarters of the way up a 36-foot-high vertical wall, scrambling ever higher on tiny finger- and toeholds. Her audience loves it.
"Bring your left foot up," yells someone in the crowd below.
"Yeah, go for it," shouts another, as Dearth edges higher. Clapping breaks out.
"Touch the roof! Touch the roof!" the crowd chants.
But just short of the top, Dearth suddenly lets go, gently floating back to earth on the end of her climbing harness and rope. "This was only my second try," Dearth says back on the ground, breathless, face beaming, as she climbs out of the harness. "When you get up there it's really scary, but it feels really good, too!"
Welcome to Kids on Campus at Ohio University (OU) in Athens, Ohio. It's not just another summer camp. For six weeks in June and July, elementary school children from Athens County's five school districts come to OU's bucolic campus for everything from intensive reading and math tutoring to lessons in swimming, rock climbing, and photography. And for a healthy breakfast and lunch.
"My original objective was simply to feed children," says project director Ann Teske, shaking her head affectionately at the excited climbers. The university had originally hired Teske, a high-energy Ph.D., to create a retirement center there. But her discovery that a high proportion of kids in Athens County—Ohio's poorest county—qualified for federally subsidized school lunches set the wheels in her brain spinning. How well, she wondered, were all those kids eating during the summer?
Teske learned that summer for the county's less affluent children was anything but the rich, nurturing vacation it was supposed to be. "I had a girl for two years who would come in at the end of the summer looking emaciated," says program director Angie Cantrell, a former county fifth- and sixth-grade teacher who took over Kids On Campus's day-to-day direction this year. "The little girl was in charge of her three younger siblings, and no one went grocery shopping very much." Indeed, says Barry Oches, chair of the Kids on Campus advisory board and principal of Amesville Elementary School, "A lot of kids did nothing all summer but watch television, and too many didn't get enough to eat."
Putting Together a Partnership
Teske decided she needed to offer those children two meals a day during the summer. And to do it, she needed a program. She approached the county's school districts. They were enthusiastic, but skeptical. They had never worked together on a project, but promised to lend their school buses and drivers, to help with paperwork, and to publicize the program. Reaching out to the wider community, Teske created a partnership between the county, its school districts, and nearby Hocking College, based on the facilities and resources of her employer, Ohio University. She applied for and received funding from agencies including the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Ohio Department of Education, and from several foundations. Six months later, in June 1996, Kids On Campus opened for business with 300 children, 60 from each of the county school districts.On this hot July morning two summers later, school buses have brought some 400 kids to the campus from the far corners of the rural county (one school district alone covers 450 square miles). Twenty percent of them are classified as children with special needs, and most qualify for free or reduced school lunches. Some have been recommended by their teachers, some by guidance counselors, and some by the county department of social services. All (with their parents' permission) will be given free physical checkups and hearing and vision assessments by OU's College of Osteopathic Medicine and College of Health and Human Services.
"We think it's a fantastic program," says Barbara Miller, president of the Ohio Children's Foundation, which donated $15,000 in 1997 and $20,000 in 1998. "It's one of the premium kids hunger programs around. We like prevention, and we think the screening program will catch some problems early. And we love the fact that it uses the facilities of a major university. Plus, it's really well run."
"I am very excited about the Kids on Campus program," says Lieutenant Governor Nancy Hollister. "This program is an excellent example of the type of partnership that offers incredible benefits to the county's schoolchildren, families, college students, and public at large. I congratulate and salute the local community organizations responsible for creating this resourceful tool, and I encourage other cooperatives to consider this project a template in their efforts to improve the quality of life for Ohio's Appalachian citizens."
Divided by age into groups of 25, the kids will be coddled and pushed and tutored for six weeks in reading, math, and computers. They will perform in plays, learn how to develop photos in a darkroom, and study conflict resolution. They will learn to swim and climb rocks and to make maps from satellite imagery, all under the nurturing guidance of 16 certified teachers, 10 high school student assistants, 32 parent teacher aides, and an assortment of volunteers and college students in an arrangement intended not just to monitor the kids, but also to provide leadership training and jobs to the county's parents and high school students.
In a morning computer lab, for instance, as mice click and screens flicker with math games, kids hone their math and computer skills. "Doing math here is fun," says nine-year-old Genny Daniels, working through an interactive program that has her counting money and figuring out change. Assisting the lab's main teacher is Shawn Bailes, a 16-year-old 11th grader. By working as a teaching assistant, he's saving money for a computer of his own, honing his computer skills, and doing something productive. "I get to teach kids, and that's fun," he says.
Watching over Daniels and Bailes is Sue Reedy, whose nine-year-old son is in the program. "Before Kids on Campus, I was, well, a mom," laughs Reedy, from Chauncey, Ohio. But her son's teacher encouraged her to apply for a position as a parent aide at Kids on Campus, a job that led her to become a certified educational aide at Chauncey Elementary School. "It's pointed me in the right direction," she says. Parents brought in as aides or volunteers are encouraged to get their general equivalency diplomas, if they never graduated from high school, and to enroll in college if they did. All parent aides can take one course tuition-free at Ohio University or Hocking College. And, as Reedy did, about 40 percent of the parents employed in the program during the summers have found permanent jobs.
Like college students, kids move from building to building throughout the day. (There seems to be a singing, boisterous troupe on every quad.) A few buildings away from the computer lab, third graders huddle with reading tutors. "The superintendents of the school districts in the county all said that reading was the single most important thing their kids needed," says Teske. And so all first through third graders in the program receive 45 minutes of one-on-one tutoring in reading four days a week, and fourth through sixth graders get group tutoring.
"I love it," says Angela Wolford, 21, an OU senior working with third grader Kayla Smith in a room full of bright art projects. Having just finished reading the children's classic Ramona the Pest, Wolford and Smith were writing a little book of their own. "It's amazing to me the relationships we've built up," says Wolford. "I had one little girl who couldn't sit still, and now she'll sit down and actually read for 20 minutes." Indeed, the "education" cuts both ways: Wolford is changing her major from journalism to education because of her tutoring experience.
The summer academic instruction seems to be working. An independent research firm, Philliber Research Associates, found that kids who participated in the program improved their test scores in reading, math, and science compared with non-participants in the county. And the teachers of participating students "indicated a significant improvement in student behavior" when they returned to school in the fall.
Of course, no summer program can be all work and no play, and at Kids on Campus they are emphasized equally. "Fitness is really important," says Teske, "because we have large numbers of children who are downright sedentary—they do little but sit in front of the television. . . . And we try to build on their self-esteem and then go to what's weaker." That means indulging athletic kids in climbing and swimming before honing in on reading and math, and vice versa for more academically oriented kids.
If college campuses are great resources for college students, they're no less so for kids. At the university's aquatic center, kids splash in an indoor Olympic-size pool, plummeting off the diving boards as shafts of sunlight stream through a wall of big windows.
"Some of the kids will take a week just to get their feet in the water," says Teske, but for others swimming is the carrot. "My son doesn't really like school, and the swimming was a lure to make him come," says Debbie Guess, of Coolville, a parent paraprofessional standing at poolside. Guess has a third grader and a fifth grader in the program, and two teenagers working as teacher aides. "It helps me know where they are," she says of the teens, "and it gives them some spending money." After three summers in the program, her third-grade daughter reads at a fifth-grade level, and her son seems to be improving, too. "I think it helps to keep them focused through the summer, and it really helps their social skills," she says. "For us, it's a family thing."
Teske has already won kudos for the program—Kids on Campus was one of five programs from across the United States to receive a U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Sunshine Award this year, for its "unique collaboration among rural agencies to provide needy children with nutritious meals and educational experiences." But Teske's hopes for the future are grand: she wants to have room for every child who wants to come (there were some 250 more applications than there were spots this summer), to further integrate Kids on Campus into the Athens County school system, and to dramatically expand its programs during the regular school year (there are some activities and tutoring during the year already). And she hopes to ease fund-raising concerns by building a $6 million endowment.
Judging from the beaming faces on the climbing wall, she's off to a good start. "Most parents say that what they notice most after the summer is that their children are willing to take risks and are much more confident." Indeed, moments after touching the ceiling 36 feet above OU's Ping Recreational Center, eight-year-old Adam Barber is as confident as Sir Edmund Hillary after his conquest of Mount Everest. "I thought I was going to fall, but then I held on and touched the top. I said, 'All right!' "
Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.