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Students RISE in learning initiative to stay up on their studies
Jose Castillo speaks through his rolled up diploma to a neighbor Friday morning during the second annual RISE Graduation program at the Davis Street Community Center. Brenau University and the Gainesville Housing Authority teamed up to provide the summer camp for at-risk students to help them retain knowledge learned before the summer months away from school.

It was time for one more graduation Friday morning, recognizing young students who have spent their summer in a classroom setting to remain at grade level in their subjects.

The students in the summer RISE program graduated in front of their teachers, parents and community supporters. Only in its second year, around 40 students walked up to receive their diplomas, more than twice last year’s 17 graduates.

It’s a dream of local college students and their advisors turned into a reality.

The idea for the Real Interactive Summer-learning Experience came out of Brenau University as a way to prevent summer learning loss, specifically among children of low-income families. They then teamed up with Gainesville Housing Authority to promote the program within their communities, and also for financial support.

The community has supported the program significantly, with Gainesville City Schools providing transportation for students, the Georgia Mountains Food Bank giving food for lunch and snacks, and the Hall County Health Department with its THINK program, which mentors young men in the community. The boys in that program serve as teacher assistants.

Friday’s graduation took place at the Davis Street Community Center by the Melrose Apartments on Davis Street. Students wore traditional caps and gowns as they marched through the apartment complex and then took their seats. After receiving diplomas, they threw their caps into the air.

Students attend classes throughout the summer, with it mirroring a typical school day. For curriculum, the program mainly focuses on reading, writing and arithmetic, said Bill Lightfoot, dean of Brenau’s school of business and mass communications, and adviser for the program.

“By fifth grade, these kids are one full year behind their classmates, and they don’t have time to catch up,” he said, adding that it becomes a noticeable problem by eighth and ninth grade, when grades dip dramatically and students begin dropping out.

“Honestly, they become part of the whole cycle of poverty,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is break the cycle of poverty by investing in these kids by an earlier age.”

This year’s group of students were rising first- through fourth-graders, many coming from nearby Fair Street Elementary School.

Student Dwayne Tripp, 8, said that he enjoyed going to classes, but he mostly enjoyed visiting the swimming pool. Lessons were offered every Friday, as the students in this program may not always have the opportunity to learn how to swim, Lightfoot said.

His sister, Zyriea Glover, 6, agreed that the swimming was her favorite part, especially the “big slide.” She also mastered some fairly important math skills.

“I learned math,” she said. “Takeaways and adding.”

Ana Lopera, a senior at Brenau University, was the lead teacher and coordinator of the RISE program this year. She was involved in the creation of the program.

“It’s just grown so much,” she said. “I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished.”

It’s something that clearly fulfills Lopera.

“This has literally made me fall more in love with teaching,” she said. “It has made me realize that this is what I’m called to do.”

The program’s four teachers are Brenau education majors.

New for this year was a program for parents, a weekly class with the aim of helping them understand what was being taught to their children. The classes were given Friday mornings while the kids were away on field trips. Parents who had attended every class received gift cards at the graduation ceremony.

But it was all about the kids, and they will continue to follow the students throughout their elementary years.
Pre- and post-tests are administered to students to see just how much they improve throughout the summer. Last year’s results showed 89 percent of students saw improvement in their reading skills, while 100 percent improved in math.

The goal for next year is to double the program again, up to 80 students. The long-term goal, Lightfoot said, is to eventually serve 300 to 400 students. Also, leaders said that many teachers during the regular school year will call and say that the students are remaining at grade level, and in some cases even moving ahead.

This year was for first- through fourth-graders. Ultimately, they want to go up through eighth grade, recruiting young students and then having them come back year after year.

Next year they are looking at a different location to better serve the housing units on Atlanta Street and Harrison Square. They hope that location will attract more students and provide more room for the growing program. After its third year, Lightfoot said the program will be eligible for funding through grants.

The program is also being looked at by a national organization, he said, as a possible affiliate program.

“There’s literally thousands of kids just here in Hall County (to serve),” Lightfoot said. “We’re ambitious.”