Successful attitudes

Monday, June 7, 2004

Eight-year-old Justin concentrates on crushing the chocolate puff cereal on the table in front of him.

The process isn't as simple as he thought it would be. The small pebbles pop out from under his thumb and fly across the table. It's easier just to eat them whole, he decides.

Following instructions from his cooking teacher, the Franklin Elementary third-grader sprinkles crumbs from the few puffs he has managed to crush onto his peanut butter banana pop and gives it a hesitant taste.

"Whoa. It's really good," he says.

Outside of bologna sandwiches, it's the first thing Justin has ever "cooked" before.

There's something more important than a tasty midafternoon snack riding on projects like the banana pops. There's the chance that such activities might be an avenue to academic success.

Franklin's educators aren't sure just how good a chance their new summer program -- dubbed Tiger Initiative -- represents for improving test scores and equalizing education for at-risk children, but there's one thing they're certain of: It can't hurt.

Principal Rhonda Dunham recognizes that many of her students need just as much help with social skills as academics. The summer program gives attention to both with reading and math classes as well as sessions in Spanish, cooking and fitness.

"I see this as a long-term benefit for these kids, and it has to be a positive benefit," said Dunham. "The idea is to do things differently than we do in the normal classroom. The kids come in with a different attitude."

The summer program, the only one of its kind in the Cape Girardeau School District and available only to Franklin students, was made possible through a $2.2 million grant awarded earlier this year to the elementary school, Central High School and the Alternative Education Center.

The state's 21st Century Learning Community grant will be divided over five years between the three schools. For the next two school years, the annual allocation is $500,000.

Franklin spent around $22,000 of this year's grant award on the 15-day summer program, which runs from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday so students can still attend the district's remedial summer school in the morning.

'Kid in a candy store'

The grant money has given the teachers unprecedented resources for the summer classes, which cater to around 80 kindergartners through fourth-graders.

"The resources are great. I was almost like a kid in a candy store," said Lyndora Hughes, who is teaching first-, second- and third-grade students in the summer program. "We usually don't get much money for supplies during the school year."

Colorful backdrops decorated with laminated multicultural flags and animals line several tables in Toni Dement's class, where she works with six of Franklin's third- and fourth-graders. During the regular school year, Dement teaches third grade at Clippard Elementary, but she's one of 12 certified teachers from around the district who signed up to teach at Franklin this summer.

"The nicest thing about this is I'm able to give the students more individual attention," said Dement. "And the kids really seem to enjoy it. A lot of them have said they'd rather be here than at home."

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