Bill Lightfoot gestured to a young boy attempting a math problem on the whiteboard.
“He was a problem,” said the dean of Brenau University’s College of Business and Mass Communication. “His parents couldn’t get him out of bed after kindergarten. He just didn’t want to go to school. He didn’t like school at all.”
That changed around two summers ago, when Brenau students majoring in education developed a small summer school to help elementary students get back on track before the regular school year starts back again.
“He was the most enthusiastic kid you could imagine,” Lightfoot said. “He would jump out of bed and be ready for breakfast.”
The Real Interactive Summer-learning Experience was developed to both prevent summer learning loss and bring students who are behind in their lessons back up to grade level.
In its third year, there are now nearly 70 students and RISE has grown into two locations; the original Davis Street site near the Melrose community, and an addition of five new classrooms this year at Fair Street School.
The young boy Lightfoot pointed out was playing a game of “trash-ketball,” where the students had to correctly solve a math problem, then attempt to score a point for their team by throwing a ball into a trash can.
“I look forward to it every day,” said his teacher Megan Smith, a recent Brenau graduate. “I think the difference of being able to be in a classroom this year has truly made a difference. The kids are a little bit more focused.”
The program lasts for six weeks, culminating in a July graduation. And it’s not all about being in the classroom — students take part in swimming lessons, bowling and other area field trips.
“We had two primary goals when we started,” Lightfoot said. “One was to eliminate summer learning loss. The second thing was to improve the wellness of the kids.
“The key element is we want them to enjoy what they’re doing,” he added. “We want to have fun. It’s still summer, but perhaps even more importantly we want them to come out of the RISE program with this renewed sense of, ‘Education is important. I like education.’ We’ve seen that with these kids.”
In a separate classroom, first-grader Jaida Thompson had just finished reading a story with her teacher, and was getting prepared to draw a picture of a recent dream she had.
“It’s a happy dream,” she said. “The dream is about a cat. The cat is so happy about the future.”
Lightfoot said he’s heard from teachers, particularly those at Fair Street, who have noticed a marked difference in students who otherwise would have required remediation at the beginning of the year.
Instead, many RISE graduates enter school on grade level, or even slightly above.
The children also get looked at by Brenau nursing and occupational therapy majors, so issues can be addressed.
Lightfoot said around five students were discovered to have problems with their eyesight.
“The critical thing there is to identify kids that might have vision or hearing issues, or other kinds of issues,” Lightfoot said. “You may or may not catch that during the regular school year. That makes a huge difference, if they can’t see the board or they can’t hear clearly.”
As the program continues to grow, the hope is to serve more students across both Gainesville and Hall County schools.
“It’s wonderful,” said Ana Lopera, a recent Brenau graduate. Lopera has been a teacher with the RISE program since its inception. “It’s like my baby. I’ve watched it grow and I’m just so proud of it.
“It’s been challenging, but just seeing the results, it’s very rewarding.”