If it's Saturday, school's in session

For some Howard pupils, part of the weekend is spent reinforcing skills

January 29, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For most youngsters, Saturdays are a break from busy daily routines. But last weekend, dozens of children gathered in Worthington Elementary School's media center for an extra morning of school.

For these children, the six-week-long Saturday school is not perceived as punishment. The small classes, run by Helping Hands Enrichment and Leadership Foundation and taught by Howard County teachers, have no homework and no tests. The pressure to perform is off.

The foundation was established in 1987, aiming to provide academic enrichment to county schoolchildren. The Saturday program is now at five elementary schools each fall and spring. A full-day academic summer camp is also available.

At Bryant Woods, Phelps Luck, Running Brook and Swansfield elementary schools, a Helping Hands coordinator and principal identify children who will be invited to attend the free skills-reinforcing program. A grant from the Rouse Co. and Bank of America pays for supplies and teacher salaries.

Worthington's program is unique. It is open to all Howard County pupils in grades one through five. The tuition is $115.

Pat Dodson, Bonnie Branch Middle School's sixth-grade team leader and reading teacher, is education director for Helping Hands. "What I like about the program is it supports the reading, math and writing skills," she said. "Also, the kids get to meet kids from all over the county, and it helps them with their pride and self-confidence."

Elaine Buggs of Columbia brought her 6-year-old son, James Jr., in the hope of bolstering his math skills. He attends first grade at Jeffers Hill Elementary. "This looks like a fun program, but still stresses academics," she said.

Toni April of Elkridge said that although her first-grader loves school, "he's having a hard time this year. ... I just want him to be on track."

Buggs said that for her child, "it's just tough to get him to focus." At first, James Jr. was resistant to going to school on a Saturday. But, his mother said, "As long as there's other kids learning with them, they're fine."

Helping Hands encourages a sense of community among those who attend. At the start of each session, pupils and teachers meet as a group to talk about the previous week. Children are encouraged to share achievements they have had in their regular classrooms.

After the opening meeting, the children go to classes grouped by grade level. On Saturday, the fourth-graders had a math race and begged their teacher to let them do long-division problems.

In third grade, the children learned about descriptive language. After hearing part of a story without the benefit of illustrations, they had to imagine and draw an ocean scene.

William Hester, a third-grader at Gorman Crossing Elementary, said he did not want to come to Saturday school at first, but "we're doing fun stuff."

Melvina Brown of Ellicott City has been president of Helping Hands since December 2001. Now a real estate agent, she is a former Howard County educator.

"We're able to do a lot of hands-on things with them. They enjoy it," Brown said. "It really is rewarding to see the progress of the students and how enthusiastic they are.

"One of our goals [is] that every child in the Howard County school system should be on grade level, if not above. We help make our students on the level that they should be on, so that they feel good about themselves because they're able to achieve," Brown said.

One of the keys to the program's success, according to Dodson, is hiring experienced teachers who are aware of age-appropriate skills. "They know what a first-grader should be able to do when they leave first grade," she said.

With 12 or fewer pupils, these educators have the luxury of customizing lessons to their pupils' needs.

Dodson attributes the positive tone to the staff. "I think that the attitude of the teachers - being so positive and excited about what they're doing - I think that really helps the kids. ... They're learning in creative ways and different ways that they might not normally get in school," she said.

Information: 410-715-3053.

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