Building on children's talents

Two summer camps help kids achieve by mixing academics with enrichment activities they enjoy


A group of excited teenage boys marvel at their latest accomplishment - a miniature roller coaster that they designed. A floor below, braids fly through the air with each simultaneous stomp as 14 teenage girls perform a step routine under the watchful eye of instructor Maleeta Kitchen, a second-grade teacher at Running Brook Elementary School.

"Arms are still not together," Kitchen said to the girls, who were perfecting a routine where they spoof Making the Band, a hit MTV show. "We cannot have a delayed reaction."

Down the hall, a trio of young thespians rehearses a scene from Raisin in the Sun, while a few steps away a group of 27 teens finishes a 90-second hip-hop routine with a flourish.

The variety of sights, sounds and achievements - academic and artistic - are a taste of what's been happening in the last month at Wilde Lake High School, the site of two camps sponsored by the county school system's Black Student Achievement Program.

The Summer Learning Camp attracts pupils in first through fifth grade, and the Student Enrichment and Accelerating Achievement of Leadership program is open to sixth- through 12th-graders. The programs, which conclude today, attracted 250 participants.

Mornings are spent studying a variety of core academic courses, while the afternoons are dedicated to enrichment activities such as chorus, drama, hip-hop dance, technology and engineering.

"The programs offer an opportunity for students to get academic assistance they need, and it addresses summer [learning] loss, which happens to all students," said Patricia Branner-Hill, one of three directors overseeing the two programs. "We don't have homework, but they [students] learn their likes, and they want to be here. We're trying to help them find their voice."

Harold Moijueh, a 13-year-old pupil at Wilde Lake Middle School, said the experience of building a roller coaster in the engineering club has helped him prepare for his goal of being an entrepreneur.

"I've learned that there are so many ways to produce products," said Harold, who said that in addition to building smaller-scale roller coasters, students in the engineering club developed budgets and advertisements and calculated the land acquisition costs associated with the project. "I never thought adults had to go through all this. In the beginning I said, `Why do we have to do all this? We're kids.' But, after I got the hang of it, I liked it."

Renee Bell, a 14-year-old who will attend Oakland Mills High School next month, said that her favorite part of the SEAL program is the hip-hop dance class.

"I want to be a dancer and choreographer," said Renee, who has been singled out by her teachers for her advanced dance skills and regularly helps her peers perfect their moves. "The program is good. I get to help people."

The programs, which have been in existence for the past decade, attract repeat participants - 80 percent of the students are returnees - because of the mix of enrichment activities and academic training, according to director Eugene Rose.

"It gives them a head start on course work," said Rose, who explained that students are taught a condensed version of course work for the coming school year. "Even though it is a short span, they appreciate the head start. They will be a little ahead of the class."

Transportation and lunch are included in the $400-per-student camp cost. There is also a sliding scale for siblings or students on free or reduced-price meals, said Branner-Hill.

"We take everybody, on, below or above grade level, and special needs students," Branner-Hill said. "Everybody brings something to the table."

The programs use the services of 11 high school students, who serve as mentors for the younger participants.

One mentor, Rashon Henderson, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Wilde Lake High School, said it is important for the younger participants to work with young African-American role models.

"The younger people look up to us," Henderson said. Ninety-five percent of the participants in the camps are African-American. "If me or another black person says something, they will respect it more."

The program's 28 teachers, who primarily come from the Howard County school system, use enthusiasm and deviate from traditional teaching methods to keep the participants engaged.

Ravi Bakhru, who teaches pre-algebra and English to the older students, said he infuses current events articles and music lyrics into lessons to keep his students' attention.

"You have to reach them on a different level," said Bakhru, who teaches U.S. government at Long Reach High School. "It's hard to motivate when there are no grades."

Bakhru said one of the most enjoyable parts of the program for him is working with the engineering club, which at times has mirrored an episode of The Apprentice.

"It's been great to watch," Bakhru said about the series of job-related tasks that the students have been required to complete. "There are days when every single one would be fired, and there are some days when everyone would get a raise."

Karen Duvigneaod, a displaced math and drama teacher from New Orleans, said her favorite part of the four weeks is watching the students grow in such a short amount of time.

"One girl - we couldn't get a word out of her," Duvigneaod said about a drama participant. "Now she wants to be an actress."

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