"Building Little Citizens"

    In a quiet, unassuming room in Engleman Hall this summer, the important work of “building little citizens” has been under way, says Aaron Washington, associate dean of student affairs. This critical effort is an outcome of the Southern Academy (SA), a summer enrichment program for New Haven schoolchildren that was born on Southern’s campus in 2011.

    The achievement gap in Connecticut is one of the worst in the country, and the university strives to level the playing field with a variety of programs aimed at supporting the learning of local elementary and secondary school students. SA is one such program, with its goal of helping New Haven school children enhance their skills in key areas. The academy includes an intensive, four-week on-campus program of education during the summer.

    SA is part of a multi-pronged approach that Southern has taken to help ensure that city school children receive the tools to succeed at an early age – in essence, tackling the achievement gap in the developmental years.

    The first group of 25 students, all rising fourth graders, started SA in June 2011. The current group of 16 students just finished grade five, says Washington, and includes a few of the original students. While the program originally focused on the STEM disciplines, it now concentrates primarily on literacy. Washington says testing shows that the students’ reading skills and comprehension have been improving, thanks to their work in SA.

    The program runs five days a week for four weeks, with academic work done in the morning and enrichment activities in the afternoon. Each participating child receives a free laptop computer for use during SA to assist them with the educational enrichment programs they will be involved in. The ultimate goal of SA is for each student to go on to college and earn a degree.

    SA’s literacy coach, Lauren Skultety, does all of the planning and primary instruction. A part of SA since its beginning, she says the most rewarding aspect of working with SA has been seeing the progress that students make throughout the course of each summer, as well as from year to year. “I’ve seen several of our participants go from reluctant students to enthusiastic readers and/or writers,” she says. She adds, “I’m really proud of the community that we’ve built. Even though new students have joined the program, we’ve managed to create a sense of family in our group. Students work well together and support each other in their efforts to improve.”

    The successes she’s seen have been academic as well as social/emotional, Skultety says. Based on pre- and post-test data, SA students have made tremendous progress in reading and writing each summer. Socially, students have improved in their ability to work together, express their ideas and contribute to a group. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Skultety say, “I think our students have become more critical thinkers about the world around them. We’ve looked at some social issues, and read about and discussed various topics related to social justice. Students now think more critically about global topics, and they’ve become very engaged in thinking about the world beyond what they can see because of what we’ve read and how we’ve discussed it.” All part of building little citizens.

    Skultety says that SA gives students a head start on instruction for the following year. By working on reading and writing skills for an entire month before a new school year begins, SA students go back to school in the fall with the advantage of having the background knowledge that many do not. Skultety says several SA students have returned the following summer and reported that they felt well-prepared for school because of the work they did at SA.

    Washington says, “We made a promise to these kids in 2011, and the university will find a way to keep Southern Academy going.”