New program brings learning, interaction for 3rd and 4th graders at Penn Park

August 3, 2020   |   By Scott Girard, The Capital Times

The Capital Times

A group of eight third- and fourth-graders sat around a bucket of water on a recent Wednesday morning, waiting for Richard Jones Jr. to drop in a cantaloupe and watch whether it would float or sink.

Before Jones Jr. made the drop, he asked the students: Sink or float? They needed to make a guess — or, as it’s called in the scientific method process they were learning, a hypothesis. A mix of responses filled the air as they observed the next step in the method — experiment — and eventually the final step: a conclusion about what made certain foods float.

The lesson was one of many the group will learn this summer through the S²MARTLY in the Park summer learning program, sponsored by Mt. Zion Baptist Church and led by a group of educators hoping to help students avoid a “summer slide” amid an unprecedented time in education. The activities are focused on science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — and taught three mornings a week over a three-hour, outdoor class at Penn Park.

They also highlight successful African Americans in STEM and other fields to create a culturally relevant curriculum for the mostly Black students in the program.

“They have science, math, social studies and reading materials that actually reflect back to who (the students) are,” said Andreal Davis, who planned the curriculum. “One of the big things in putting the curriculum together I thought about was they were seeing negative images in the media and wanting to give them that vision of greatness, wanting them to see and learn about people like Booker T. Washington and Sojourner Truth.”

The group is taking safety precautions, including temperature checks for every student in attendance, health screening questions, required masks and regular pumps from a giant hand sanitizer dispenser. The group is limited to 21 participants to keep it at a maximum of 25 people when the four instructors are counted, though attendance fluctuates on any given day.

The program received grants from Dane County in June and another from the Evjue Foundation announced in July. The Evjue Foundation is the charitable arm of the Capital Times Company, but has no control over the editorial side of the paper.

Shortly after finding out about the money from the county, Mt. Zion lead pastor Rev. Marcus Allen called University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Gloria Ladson-Billings about getting something started.

“Like this,” he said while snapping his fingers, “she had a whole acronym and everything ready to go.”

Ladson-Billings said she’s “been thinking about questions of summer slide for a while,” and this was a good opportunity to put some of those thoughts into practice.

“Last year we were saying we were not making use of all the resources that we have,” she said. “It was sort of in the back of my mind all along.”

Before the floating fruit, students sat in pairs at picnic tables, each with a staff person leading them through a reading about physicist Shirley Jackson, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The rest of the morning included a reading about Booker T. Washington, snack time and games in the field behind the pavilion at Penn Park. All of the lessons provide something the program’s leaders say is just as important as any learning that happens: interactions with other kids.

Jones Jr., the program director, leads the teaching along with three staff members. He saw “how devastated” his own daughter, who is in the program, was when schools closed this spring.

“Education is cool and getting them to learn is awesome, but in the end it’s the social-emotional that makes the difference, getting to be with each other in the same place, laughing and joking,” Jones Jr. said. “Seeing them in this setting gives me hope.”

A typical morning

Students arrive between 8:45 and 9:15 a.m. each Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the program, which began July 22, and runs through Aug. 21.

After a health check, students dive in to a Black history activity. On Wednesday, that meant discussing Booker T. Washington’s legacy — with one pair learning about Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“Me and Booker T. Washington went to the same school,” one of the staff members told a pair of students.

“You went after him?” Deion, 8, asked in response, prompting a big laugh from the staffer.

Deion said he likes “doing fun things” at the program and is glad to be part of it, even though he doesn’t miss school.

“I want the summer to not end,” he said.

Snack time included strawberries on that day. Some students discussed what food they would eat if they could only eat one for the rest of their lives: one said burgers, the other decided on pizza.

Once they regrouped, they played a game in the field and then gathered again under the pavilion to learn about that day’s African American STEM figure, Jackson. Each day ends with an experiment related to that person and a discussion of the STEM topic.

‘Future of education’

Jones Jr. said he sees the outdoor, small-group and hands-on model “as a strong possibility for the future of education,” especially while the pandemic continues.

That future could be coming soon. Ladson-Billings said she’s working on a proposal for this fall to station small groups of students in various places around the south side as teachers move around to teach specific content areas.

“They need the face-to-face learning, but I also don’t want to put people in large schools, because this virus is something we don’t really understand,” Ladson-Billings said.

Ladson-Billings sees the possibility of the summer program scaling up around the city next summer, as well. For now, the group is glad to help students through a tumultuous time.

“It’s something we’re super proud of,” Allen said.

Jones Jr. also stressed the importance of the cultural relevance to the students, and wants to see that “ingrained in education from the beginning.”

“It shouldn’t be something you have to learn in your free time,” he said.

To drive home the students’ connections to their own world, the bags they receive — put together by Davis — include a worksheet titled “Just Like Who?” The sheet features two dozen examples of famous Black people, their accomplishments and a blank line where students can write in someone in their lives who shares the qualities.

“(Blank) is a great communicator. They’ll be great in business just like Madam C.J. Walker,” says one.