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Gainesville Middle offers a different kind of summer school
SOAR creates fun ways to learn, adjust to new school year
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Christopher Benitez, 13, joins classmates Tuesday morning as they learn a choreographed dance segment for a video the class is producing at Gainesville Middle School. The school has started a new summer initiative to help students get ready for the next school year and also have fun.

In one classroom at Gainesville Middle School last week, eighth-graders were working with a choreographer from the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, perfecting dance moves for a video the students were creating.

Down the hall, rising sixth-graders were making boats of different shapes and discovering which shape could hold the most pennies. Meanwhile, seventh-graders in another room were trying to figure out how characters they had created could escape a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

It’s all part of a new approach to the traditional remedial programs of summer school.

The program called SOAR, for Skills, Organization, Academics and Role models, offers creative ways to learn and helps students get used to expectations in their new grade level.

“Instead of being summer school, where there’s just rigor, rigor, rigor, rigor, we are more relaxed; we can have conversations,” said Ashley Grubbs Weber, a seventh-grade teacher. “They’re more open about what they want to learn and what they have trouble with. Some of them they get straight A’s and they don’t have any trouble. Their parents wanted them to come and make sure they knew what was coming up for the next year.

“For the teachers, we get to know the kids, so when they come to us so next year, they know us and we know them,” she added. “The connection, the bond, makes it really easy and these kids will become the leaders for next year to help others.”

More than 100 students participated in the first year of SOAR, according to Courtney Hagans, an eighth-grade teacher. The two-week program will finish up this week with a new group of students.

“Originally, our plan was to target the kids that were struggling, but because it’s a new program, we opened it to everyone to see how it would go” Hagans said. “It’s actually going really well. The kids who are here wanted to be here. It’s a mixture of ability groups. It’s not based on their academic levels at all.”

Hagans added that teachers had autonomy to choose how they were going to teach the students in their grade level.

In sixth grade, teachers focused on creative ways to teach students new skills as well as help them get more comfortable with the dramatic change from elementary to middle school.

Science teachers Dominic Sabatino and Paul Sparks gave the students pieces of aluminum foil and asked them to construct a boat in different shapes and put pennies in each boat. The objective was for the students to determine which shape could hold the most weight.

“You’ve got to make the kids engage,” Sparks said of the experiment. “You’ve got to give the kids intrinsic motivation.”

The sixth-graders also investigated a mystery with the scenario that Principal Rose Prejean-Harris had been kidnapped. They were asked to figure out who did it, while following clues around the building.

“We have staged some crime scenes around the building, so we’re going to explore the building so they can feel comfortable with our walls and our hallways, and they’re going to find out who did it,” Shannon McGonigal, a sixth-grade teacher. “Our sixth graders are loving it. They came in the building and some of them were very scared. Now they’re going home and they’re telling their parents, ‘I’m not scared anymore; this is going to be great.’ We want them to know that middle school is fun. We want to make sure their transition from elementary school is as smooth as possible.”

Taylor Nixon, who is entering middle school from Enota, said middle school is “a huge change” from elementary school.

“I came so I would be able to be prepared for middle school,” she said. “We practiced changing classrooms, we have learned how to open our lockers and we’ve learned some stuff about teachers. It’s helped us a lot. I guess it’s scary because it’s such a big school. I’m scared I’m going to get lost.”

Seventh and eighth-grade teachers gave the students a preview of materials that would be a focus of their new grade level in the fall..

In seventh grade, Weber was teaching writing skills with students writing stories about the Holocaust and 9/11. The students were also working on math, character development and organizational skills.

“The really neat thing about this program is No. 1, I get to know new students coming up next year; they’re comfortable with us and they already know what’s going on,” Weber said. “No. 2, I really get to work with them on their weaknesses from the previous year. We are teaching skills so that when they come up to seventh grade, they have that background knowledge and they have those prerequisites to help them be successful so they won’t be so far behind.”

Karla Cruz, a rising seventh-grader, was writing a story about a character trying to escape a concentration camp during the Holocaust. She said the program is helping her get ready for the new school year.

“I wanted to see the teachers and feel comfortable for next year,” she said.”I’m kind of nervous and scared about next year. I think it may be harder.”

The eighth-graders wrote words and created a dance they performed based on what they were learning about how to write a constructive response, something that will be on the Milestones end of grade test. Laurin Dunleavy, Hagans’ college roommate at Brenau University and a teaching artist at the Woodruff Arts Center, helped the students with their dance moves. The students later turned the dance into a music video.

“What I love doing with the students is kind of helping them realize their potential with dance and their creativity,” Dunleavy said. “My goal is to help them decide movements that maybe they didn’t think were inside of them and give them more options for where they could do it in a space. There’s not just one way to do dance; it’s whatever they decide is the right way.”

Eighth-grader India Borders said she has enjoyed the program.

“The best part learning is how to do the dance moves and getting a little extra learning before school starts,” she said. “I signed up because I thought it would be fun and I would have something to do during the summer. The extra learning that we get now is helpful for the next school year.” 

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