Students sit on the side after losing a game of "knockout"… (Sun photo by Gabriella Demczuk )
School never closed this summer for about 30 Baltimore City middle-school students. They arrive at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School with enthusiasm for a day that may be shorter and more laid-back, but still enhances their academic and athletic skills.
These kids are reading books of their own choosing, writing in their personal journals, zipping through math calculations and working out on the basketball court. They spend two hours a day in an air-conditioned classroom and two in the gym — cooled only with fans — at the school on West Lexington Street, a few miles from downtown.
"I love this program because I can help children and play basketball at the same time," said Ashantae Curtis, a rising sophomore at Western High School and a mentor in the summer learning program. "I like seeing them thinking about things and telling me their answers to problems. I also love getting right in front of them on the basketball court and making them dribble around me and run past me."
Natasha Thurmon, who has been teaching English and coaching for eight years at the school, developed the program, which she calls Mindful Mentors Planting Seeds. Her plan for safe summer activities took root this spring and became urgent, as the city began closing recreation centers in the school's neighborhood.
"So many bad things are waiting for them, if they don't have something to do," Thurmon said. "It was just a matter of making our mentoring program run all year. We are keeping these kids in shape mentally and physically."
Rodlinda Brinkley, 11, said she would rather be in school than at home. The novel she is reading inspired her to start her own diary and she hopes she is acquiring the sports skills that could lead to a spot on a high school team in a few years.
"Here I am learning about all the stuff I can do," Brinkley said.
LaShay Stackhouse, 15, and a rising sophomore at Dunbar High School, said mentoring is improving her own skills.
"Most of these kids can be a challenge, but they want to learn," she said. "I just tell them to take their time."
Alex Courtney, 12, said help is usually right next to him, whether he is stuck on a math problem or needs pointers on foul shots. Terry Moore, 14, has one more year at Franklin Square and is hoping to play basketball and lacrosse, maybe on scholarship at a private high school, he said. The program is guiding him to that goal, he said. For Maushae Peters, 11, the program means there is always someone to talk to and for her 11-year-old classmate Keshawna Edwards, there is something to do with idle hours.
Kevin Carroll, who is about to enter high school, has found confidence. He is ready to study and play on a more intense level, he said.
"You can't play on a high school team if you don't get good grades," Carroll said. "This program is teaching me both."
Thurmon found mentors among former students, like Ashantae and LaShay, and support from colleagues at Morgan State University, like Brittany Dodson, a basketball player and coach. On the court, Dodson constantly urged the young "ladies and fellas" to try their hardest. She did all the plays and exercises with them and offered one-on-one coaching, if requested.
"I see the potential in these kids," Dodson said. "With the proper focus, dedication and guidance, they can make it to their own best level."
A $15,000 grant, part of $300,000 in Baltimore Direct Service funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is paying for supplies, meals and stipends for mentors.
"We want summer to be the time for gaining much instead of losing ground," said Lisa D. Kane, senior associate at the foundation. "This is an example of someone with compelling ideas and a connection to students in the community. When I reviewed this grant application, I could picture that connection."
Rob Cradle, who runs Rob's Barbershop Community Foundation, assisted with the grant writing and handles other fiscal aspects of the program. He also stops by several times a week.
"This is a really well-balanced program that incorporates academics and athletics," Cradle said. "These are great kids who really are engaged in what they are doing and really want to be in school this summer."