- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - Seventeen lucky children put their minds together last week in a new summer day camp at the University of Georgia.

All students at Oglethorpe Elementary School, grades three through five, the 17 were given the opportunity to spend two weeks working on creative problem-solving in the mornings and going on field trips in the afternoons - last Tuesday to the UGA Latin American Ethnobotanical Garden, and last Wednesday to the Athens-Clarke County Recycling Facility, for example.

They are the first participants in a new summer camp sponsored by the UGA College of Education’s Center for Latino Achievement and Success, the “Future Innovators Elementary Summer Thinking Academy,” or FIESTA. The goal is pretty much found in the title of the center - helping the children do well in school.

Most of the children are participants in a long-term mentoring and tutoring program the center has in cooperation with Oglethorpe Elementary, and all have one thing in common - at home, English is not the first language, explained center director Pedro Portes.

They’re as bright as any children, but research clearly shows Latino children in households where English is not the first language are more likely than average to struggle in school, and may fall behind several grades by the time they’re set to begin high school, Portes said.

“They don’t have someone at home to help them with English, or who can negotiate for them with the school,” he said.

And research also shows many students, especially low-income students, fall back in reading and other school skills during the summer, he said.’

And before long, optimism is likely to be replaced with hopelessness in school, he said.

Portes and Will Mira, the graduate student who’s actually running the camp, hope the camp can help these children avoid at least some of that summer fallback.

On Tuesday morning, the children were focused on having fun as they talked about how to solve a specific problem faced not just by them and their families, but by the Athens community - healthy eating.

They sat around a long table in the College of Education’s River’s Crossing Building on College Station Road, narrowing down a long list of possible solutions.

Earlier, they’d thought of a couple of hundred things that might help, then narrowed the list down to 23; Tuesday’s goal was to get it down to six, and today they’ll pare it down to one doable goal, guided by graduate students Octavia Ferguson and Jeremy Piña of the College of Education’s Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development.

“Do you want to get rid of ‘burn the junk food’?” Ferguson asked.

“Yes!” was the resounding chorus.

Veggie ice cream was also a no-go. But Omar Ulloa won over the group with a couple of his ideas, including his “Greasies vs. Veggies” video game.

“It’s like the greasies are the bad guys and the veggies are the good guys,” he said.

Later, they visited the ethnobotanical garden on the edge of UGA’s North Campus, lush with summer growth, where Clarke Middle School agriculture teacher Debbie Mitchell and two other guides took small groups of the children around. They explained what the plants were and had the children touch, smell and taste some of them, like the oily lemon verbena - very popular in Argentina, Mitchell said - and Hoja Santa, which gives licorice its flavor.

Mira and Portes hope the camp builds a learning community among the young participants, and the camp turns into an annual event.

They also plan to continue working with these children for five to seven years with tutoring, mentoring and other aid, and to track their academic success.

But to do it right, the center needs grant funding or other support it doesn’t yet have, Portes said.

The camp is just one part of a program Portes is trying to build in Georgia, including, among other things, better training for teachers of Hispanic students, tutoring for students and research that can track students through their school careers and help researchers know what works and what doesn’t. Helping these kids succeed helps not only them but their communities, he said.

“We need a multifaceted plan to reach these learners at different points in their of the lifespan,” he said. “I think we could (erase those achievement gaps) a lot faster than five or seven generations,” he said.

For more information on the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education, visit the website coe.uga.edu/clase.


Information from: Athens Banner-Herald, https://www.onlineathens.com

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