The summer months look different to many students this year with traditional activities like camps, sports, and pools largely shut down or operating at limited capacity.
Students at Hillcrest Elementary School, however, have been given the opportunity to be just as productive online through a special summer program run by the school called LEAP – Learning through Extended Academic Programs.
This is the second year Hillcrest Elementary has run the program. Last year, it was limited to English Language (EL) students and those that may have needed a refresher on some academic skills. But due to the pandemic this year, the program was opened to all students in grades three through five.
Participants attend a two-hour academic session Monday through Thursday focused in English Language Arts, Social-Emotional Learning, and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects.
There are also a variety of “extension” activities that students can participate in at any time during the day such as virtual field trips, escape room activities, and fitness videos that incorporate yoga and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
The theme of this year’s program, according to Jessica Cook, correlates to the book “The 7 Habits of Happy Kids.”
Cook is a special education teacher at Hillcrest Elementary and coordinates the Extension Activities of the LEAP Program.
The program began on June 29 and will run for seven weeks. Each week a new habit is introduced to students and incorporated into the extension activities.
“Each habit focuses on a different skill that will teach them to be more successful either at home or at school and in the community,” Cook said.
Habits include learning to be proactive, how to put “first things first” and focus on learning first and then play, and how to set and achieve goals.
Cook said the theme came about due to the current state of the world.
“We really felt like at this time with so much stress in the world [students] really needed some positive skills to learn to help them respond to situations and just to help them take better care of themselves,” she said.
The program is free for students and funded through a state grant which allows the school to provide students with materials needed for the program such as workbooks, pencil boxes, and materials needed for the extension activities.
Out of the 302 students that were invited to participate in the program, 189 registered, said Karen Miller, a math specialist at Hillcrest Elementary and principal of LEAP.
Each day at least 80 percent of registered students actively engage with the program.
In order to make sure students stay and feel connected Cook said herself and two other teachers also hold live, 30-minute sessions each day where students can join and do extension activities together.
Cook said sometimes the live sessions can be as simple as holding a “lunch bunch” to talk with students and incorporate things they’ve been learning or other activities.
“Our number one goal for those sessions is connection and making sure they feel supported and that they’re happy and that they’re communicating while also promoting our extension programs,” she said.
The extension programs are meant to be fun and a way for kids to stay engaged without needing a lot of equipment and materials – which is how yoga and MMA came into play.
Zach Davis, a coach at The Fort Martial Arts Academy in Frederick, knew Cook and decided to help out with developing weekly MMA videos for the program.
Each video goes through various concepts of MMA and teaches the kids games and techniques they can do at home.
The videos are short and sweet, Davis said, because of the age group.
“We try to keep it in the attention span of an elementary school kid. Ten minutes is about as much focus as you’re going to get for them to watch the video,” he said.
Davis, who has four children himself, said he wanted to help because he knows how tough the summer months can be when kids don’t have anything to do — which is heightened even more now because of the coronavirus.
“Having a couple of activities that kids can do that are fun and keep them engaged is really big I think especially right now. And then it helps the kids feel good,” Davis said.
Giving students an easy, pre-packaged video that they can turn on and jump right into is perfect for both parents and kids who may have run out of ideas.
“Kids I don’t think enjoy sitting around all day and watching YouTube. I think they want to do something they just don’t know what it is,” he said.
Daysi Centeno has a daughter entering third grade at Hillcrest Elementary. Centeno, who spoke with the News-Post through a Spanish-language interpreter, said she loves that her daughter has a full day of activities that not only continue her academics and help her improve her English language skills but also allow her to do fun things like practice music and play games.
Cook said she has heard similar positive feedback from not only parents but the students themselves.
“I asked [students] what is the best part about LEAP? And every single one of them said we get to see other people and we’re never bored, we have so much to do and we get to make new friends,” Cook said. “[It] has been a tremendously amazing experience for our students in a time where they really need something positive and uplifting and challenging and rigorous but also fun and supportive.”
Miller agreed and said it’s also uplifting for the teachers.
“The kids are providing teachers also inadvertently with a very positive happy moment in time so I’m just really thrilled to be maybe not physically be in front of children again but to see children and to hear their voices,” she said.
The program will continue until Aug. 13 and Cook said they are planning on introducing some new extension activities such as easy cooking activities that students can do with an adult.