The lights dimmed, a soothing voice filled a Martin Luther King Elementary classroom last week. More than a dozen students sprawled out on a large rug, eyes closed, breaths measured.
“We are going to take a little journey to the land of mindfulness,” the voice said, easing out of speakers. “It’s a place inside of you, where you are safe and strong, a place that puts a smile on your face.”
A handful of teachers lined the perimeter of the rug, breathing and relaxing alongside the students in a “mindful moment,” a chance to calm and re-center themselves.
A few minutes later, those same students were racing up and down the hallways, ducking under a patchwork wall of streamers dubbed the “laser maze” and deciphering mixed-up words as they played the role of spies. It was another day at Schenectady’s new summer program for elementary students, a program that district officials hope to roll out to hundreds more students in the coming years.
“What’s a spy?” teacher Colleen Belcher asked the students.
“A spy is where you go to secret places and you get to save the world,” 7-year-old Lydell Jenkins said.
The day before they were ninjas. And they made a campfire.
For the past three weeks, more than 200 students have settled in at MLK for 10-hour days. Divided among 17 rooms — most with a dozen students or fewer — the students received daily math and literacy lessons coupled with other activities and projects and three meals a day. More than 600 students across the district are participating in what officials are calling a “pilot” that could grow into a much bigger program.
The MLK students hosted a community carnival last month, with each class setting up a stand or activity. Students at Paige and Pleasant Valley elementary schools, the summer program’s two other sites, put on similar events, but the details were largely left to the individual schools.
“Every class had its own path to get where they needed to get,” said Tom Hopkins, site coordinator at MLK.
For the end of the program, the students are planning a dinner and a show. During the summer, educators are using different academic approaches, ramping up the relative use of computers for each student, relying on “off-the-shelf” reading and math curriculum and emphasizing projects that guide days of activities and give students a chance to develop creative ideas.
The projects have also opened other doors. While planning for the carnival, a student decided to call Bow Tie Cinema about borrowing a popcorn machine. For the last three weeks of the program, the cinema hosted a free movie for students with CDTA providing the transportation.
“That happened from kids calling for popcorn,” Hopkins said.
The Boys and Girls Club also jumped in the mix, providing daily swim lessons at Hillhurst and Quackenbush parks. And Hopkins said he and other site leaders are talking to other community groups that might get involved in future. Friday is the last day of this summer’s program.
In the hallway and for the mindfulness moment last week, three classes had combined for the series of afternoon activities. Seven adults, teachers and paras worked with about 25 students — a much higher level of attention than during the school year.
The teachers set the students into teams of three, which were given a series of challenges: reconstruct the cut-up picture of a face, decode misspelled words and make their way through the laser maze.
The activity was infused with some academics and definite teamwork lessons but mostly it was just fun for the kids. In a 10-hour July day, there is enough time for academics and for free-wheeling fun.
“You have to sneak around everything, so you don’t get caught,” 7-year-old Kierah Thompson said.
While administrators and teachers can expound for hours on the importance of keeping students academically engaged in the summer months, Kierah quickly arrived at the heart of the matter. What does she like about the summer program?
“It’s that you get to learn new things, so you don’t forget about school,” she said.