Bryant students use summer program to keep academic skills strong

Jason Bowling helps his son work through a ThinkStretch exercise during the last work session on Aug. 21

By Tara Cavanaugh

With the new school year just around the corner, students will soon be talking about how they spent their summers.

In addition to vacations and pool time, Bryant Elementary students will be able to say they worked hard to keep their academic skills strong.

Bryant Elementary participated in the Summer Thinkstretch program for its third year. The program provides workbooks, calls for structured work/play dates on school playgrounds, and also supplies students with medals in the fall based on how much work they finished.

These are all strong incentives for students and parents. “If you know a session is coming up in a week, it makes you do a couple more exercises just so that it’s done in time,” parent Jason Bowling said during a Bryant work session last week.

The students are often eager for the play time and popsicles, a perk of attending the work sessions. Bowling’s son Tyson, who will be a first grader this fall, eagerly finished a page in his workbook before his dad let him play with friends on Bryant’s playground.

“Tyson likes to see his friends from school,” Bowling said. “It’s also nice to get updates about the next school year and what’s going on from the teachers.”

Angela Klein, a kindergarten teacher at Bryant, reads with an incoming kindergartener at a ThinkStretch session.

Teachers attend the work sessions, helping kids with the exercises in the workbooks and the program’s daily 20-minute reading requirement. They also help parents learn too.

“How to select a book? How do you work with a child on reading? It gives this one-on-one chance to really talk and work with parents,” said Jean Kitzmann, a Bryant kindergarten teacher.

Bryant personalized its program this year by offering its Parent Lending Library during work sessions. The library, usually available during the school year, supplies parents with a stash of books labeled at their child’s exact reading level, whether it’s A or Z.

The library started 13 years ago with a grant from the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation, and has survived on PTO support since then. The parent library also received another AAPSEF grant this spring worth $2,000 from the Karen Thomas Memorial Fund.

Teacher Angela Klein assess an incoming kindergartener’s reading level as her father watches on. Behind them, families sit on blankets, helping students read or complete their workbooks.

During the last school year, Bryant’s PTO grappled with the decision of continuing to fund the program. In previous years, only a third of the workbooks that were distributed in June were returned to the school in the fall, said Bryant Principal Roberta Heyward.

But instead of shutting down the program, the PTO –– inspired by parent feedback ––decided to try it for one more year and give it an extra promotional push.

“We were discussing abandoning it but we felt we really didn’t do it justice, giving it the attention it needed to draw the parents in, to have books available from the parent library, to do things to help people come here and visit with us,” Kitzmann said.

The PTO considered charging parents for the program, but decided that was a bad idea. “When you have a school like Bryant, which is a Title 1 school, it was our wish that it wasn’t a purchase program,” explained parent Allison Maderas.

A committee was formed to do extra fundraising to pay for the workbooks, which cost Bryant $3,800. (ThinkStretch provides AAPS the workbooks at a slight discount of $8 each.) The committee also encouraged teachers to get students excited about the program.

The promotion worked. Parents supported the fundraisers and also sent in roughly $1,000 in cash donations, enabling the committee to purchase the workbooks for all students.

“We were surprised at the amount of donations that came in,” Maderas said. “People really seemed to value the program.”

This year’s ThinkStretch program is the best-attended one yet, with more than 50 students attending the first session this summer.

Attendance decreased slightly during the next three sessions, but student and parent enthusiasm did not. “I think we’re going to have a very high return this school year,” Principal Heyward said.

ThinkStretch’s increasing reach

ThinkStretch was founded by local entrepreneur and AAPS PTO Council Chair Donna Lasinski in 2008. She began the program at Haisley Elementary, where she was PTO president.

“The goal of this program is that children come back in the fall ready to learn new material, so teachers don’t have to spend a month or two simply reviewing information that the children already knew when they left school in the spring,” said Amy Pachera, Lasinski’s business partner and board president of the Peace Neighborhood Center.

The eight-week program is focused on younger students. “We know from research that the achievement gap begins in elementary school,” Pachera said. “If you don’t get the kids in elementary school, the gap just widens as we go.”

The book isn’t sold to individual parents. Ideally, Lasinski and Pachera would like every student in a school to work on the workbook. “They want to be part of a peer group –– that’s a real strong factor for some kids,” Lasinski said.

“And you’re not just one parent making your child do a workbook, everybody is,” Pachera added.

Lasinksi created the program using plenty of research and teacher support. As of this year each grade’s workbook is aligned to the national Common Core standards, which are now used in 45 states and Washington, D.C.

Since its inception, Summer ThinkStretch has been used in several districts in Michigan, schools in 26 states and nine AAPS elementary schools.

As the ThinkStretch business grows, Lasinski and Pachera also make sure the program is accessible in many ways. They donated more than 250 workbooks to organizations in the city this year, and the ThinkStretch Facebook page provides parents free academic activities to do with their kids.

The business partners attended a national Title 1 conference last year to talk about ThinkStretch. Lasinksi said they received an enthusiastic response.

“We are really hoping to expand our reach into Title 1 schools and really start educating parents, families and students about how important it is for them to keep up their learning over the summer,” she said.

Learn more at the ThinkStretch website.

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