Hands-on learning

In North Carolina, legislators have mandated that kids who can’t perform basic math, reading and writing skills by the end of the year won’t be promoted to the next grade.

But how do you make sure students do learn those skills, when American children spend less time in the classroom than their counterparts in any other industrialized country? And how do you help the ones who fall behind?

Give them more studying and learning time, says Molly Rose, the local coordinator for an after-school program called Young Scholars. Participating elementary- and middle-school children get daily help with their homework and, each month, improve their basic skills by completing a series of projects — such as creating a stock portfolio that must be researched and tracked; writing and illustrating a book; or opening a mock veterinary clinic that needs to order supplies, she explains. “The children are learning what they need to learn [to pass their end-of-year tests], but they’re learning it in a different way — through experience and hands-on work. Into each of their projects, we integrate reading, writing and math,” Rose explains. Young Scholars participants also learn social skills, since each project requires teamwork.

Children with low test scores in the core subjects, who may be at risk of being held back, are recommended for the program by their teachers. Two Buncombe County schools — Emma Elementary in West Asheville and Johnston Elementary — are among the 20 North Carolina schools trying out the program, funded by a three-year Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation grant. The program began in January 2000.

The goal is for each child to improve his or her grades and test scores. For example, to build a stock portfolio, the children must surf the Internet, research and read about the stocks they might want to “buy,” then use math to track their imagined profits.

Even Young Scholar field trips come with built-in lessons: In their community-service work, the youngsters visit nursing homes and read to clients. “They learn they can make a difference in someone’s life,” says Rose.

It’s 4:30 p.m. as Rose speaks to Mountain Xpress at Emma Elementary. Across the room, pairs of kids, ranging in age from 8 to 11, peer at Apple computer screens. A snaggle-toothed boy, Gregory Newton, grabs the printout from his latest search and drops onto a chair at the table where his pals are waiting. A study in contained energy, he leans across the table, looking to the two girls in his group for help. Together, they study the page — a Web printout that answers the question, “Can kids buy stocks?”

The kids’ assignment is to read it, then write out their own answer to the question. “Arlene! We don’t know what to write in our own words!” Jessica Shuler calls out to the lead teacher in Emma’s Young Scholars program.

Arlene Daley patiently suggests that they read the page first, so Young Scholar Catonya Cash volunteers to recite it for the others. The first thing they learn is that kids have to have their parents’ permission — and money — to buy stocks.

Nearby, D.J. Clement — a tall, lanky 11-year-old — pauses from his Internet search to read me an answer to the question, “Who is Dow Jones?” He tells me how the two men who founded the The Wall Street Journal in the 1880s — Charles H. Dow and Edward D. Jones — started the practice of averaging stock prices. By the 1920s, Journal editors had taken over the task, and the results were referred to as the Dow Jones industrial average. Nowadays, computers calculate the averages, Clement reports. He and Ronnie Fortune retrieved the answer from an Internet search engine, Ask-Jeeves-Kids. “Jeeves can answer anything,” declares the Web-savvy Clement.

Neither he nor Fortune knows, just yet, which stock they’ll pretend to buy for this month’s project. Clement browses the list of kid-friendly companies, quickly zeroing in on his favorite restaurant — “McDonald’s!”

But enough about this Dow guy: The most fun they’ve had in Young Scholars, so far, was the cooking project.

“We made pancakes,” says Fortune, adding, “Write down that I’m almost 11.” His age accurately recorded, Fortune goes on to relate how they had to use fractions and measure out their flour, milk and eggs in the school kitchen.

But the best part was the scientific test: eating what they’d made, Clement interjects.

Daley, who recently assumed lead-teacher duties at Emma after a stint in Johnston’s Young Scholars program, emphasizes, “Their projects all have a tangible result — something they can feel good about, something they made.” That gives each child an invaluable sense of self-worth, she comments.

Measuring teaspoons and cups and quarts for pancakes makes the math real, and for many kids that’s an easier way to learn than merely reciting multiplication tables — and more interesting than tackling endless homework exercises involving fractions, Daley reflects. For the puppet-making project, for example, Daley and other teachers incorporate math terms and calculations into the work: The Styrofoam balls that form the puppets’ heads are spheres that have circumferences and diameters that the kids can measure. “Many of these kids, it’s hard for them to sit still for math homework, but get them into a project and say, ‘Make me a sphere for our puppet heads,’ and they’ll make you six dozen in a snap.” This interdisciplinary approach to learning works, Daley emphasizes.

Rose mentions, “None of these kids are reading at their grade level, so it’s a big deal that D.J. was reading about the Dow Jones — and getting it. Providing these kids the help they need, now, in elementary school, is really crucial.”

D.J. and the others — 30 at Emma, 30 at Johnston — tested lower than the state standards for their respective grade levels, and were recommended for the Young Scholars program by their teachers. But once their parents sign them up, these kids are on their way. Although it’s too soon to formally evaluate the program, parents of participating students say it has made a difference. Janice Lindsey reports that her daughter Joy Burch‘s “grades have gone up tremendously. [Young Scholars] has really done a lot for getting her some help with her homework — and it’s improved her self-discipline.”

Sisters Delilah and Crystal Kurtz are another case in point. While Newton’s group wised up about the stock market, these two girls were downstairs, making papier-mache “career” puppets that represent what they want to do when they grow up. Working together, they’ll also write a script for a puppet show they’ll present on Parents Night.

At this stage, however, the Kurtz sisters’ career notions change from moment to moment. Delilah says she wants to be an ice skater like national champion Michelle Kwan; little sister Crystal interrupts, “I want to be a skater, too!” and so does another girl in the group. Delilah — pondering the alternative choices of gymnast and cheerleader — commands, “Make sure they don’t copy me!”

The exchange is friendly, though, as the Kurtz sisters and other kids in the puppet-making group clean up after their project. Delilah and Crystal wad up the leftover newspaper scraps, and Gabriel Garcia wheels the big trash can across the room for them. They pause just long enough to pick at the dried glue on their shirt sleeves. Garcia claims he’s made the biggest puppet head, pointing to a box of drying papier-mache balls. Garcia wants to be a scientist — “the kind that studies bugs,” he says — when he grows up.

As the group heads upstairs to join the budding stockbrokers, Delilah explains the puppet-making process: “We mixed flour and glue and water till it’s kind of gooey. Then we took strips of newspaper and dipped it in the gooey stuff and wrapped it around a Styrofoam ball.”

“You like to talk,” Crystal interjects. She wrote and illustrated her own book — about Pooh Bear.

But Crystal’s footnote doesn’t slow Delilah down one bit from explaining another project: how to make a maraca.

Has Young Scholars helped her regular schoolwork? “Oh, yeah. We started last fall, and it helps with your homework, and you learn stuff,” Delilah replies.

We return to the library, where the kids turn in their notebooks and wait for their parents. Chris Ward has plopped down at a computer, where he’s matching city names to points on a map of the Southeast. Every time he gets one right, the computer literally sings his praises. When he’s matched them all, it rings out, “Congratulations!” He turns to me and says, “Look!” as the words dance across the screen.

“The most rewarding thing,” says Daley as the kids sign out for the day, “is when you see the kids’ success and [see them] become proud of who they are — and see their grades go up.” She mentions a decorative-tile project the kids are working on, explaining how they will come up with the design, measure it out for the wall where it will be displayed, then make the clay tiles and install them. “In 30 years, we can come back and see our mosaic and say, ‘We did that!’”

Eddie Johnson is already proud of his son, Eddie Jr., who says (today, at least) that he wants to be a rapper. And mother Brenda adds that the Young Scholars program “has really helped his focus.”

The Kurtz sisters’ mother agrees: “It’s really helped a lot. When we get home, their homework’s done — and it’s done by them.

“I brought that C up to an A!” Delilah pipes up. And, by the way, she’s really thinking about being a veterinarian, after chatting with Daley. Or maybe her career puppet will be someone who works in a zoo.

Says Daley, “Once they make the connection that all learning is a fun project, they can go wherever they want to go.”

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