Luisa MartÃnez worried about her son, a growing 8th grade student, who had lost ground academically during the pandemic school year and also missed out on social interactions. She was motivated to enroll him in summer programs that could help her catch up and looked for the one that would suit her best.
When she learned that the Latino Education Institute was partnering with other community organizations to form Aspire Academy, she knew she had found what she was looking for. Some organizations have a historic relationship with LEI, such as the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts, but there are others with which LEI is forging new relationships. They join the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the Worcester Education Collaborative, Acentria, the Worcester Housing Authority, the Worcester Community Action Council and the African Community Education.
âIt was time for all of us to think together to find ways to learn more in depth,â said Hilda Ramirez, Executive Director of LEI. âWe felt that the education of the students was so disrupted and that the learning gap has widened, from what we hear from parents. They are just tired of being on Zoom – for some it worked and for others it didn’t. So we wanted to offer something much more participatory.
The different community groups will each run different sites with their own themes, such as STEM for LEI or art and culture with SEACMA. While the activities themselves may have been completed in the past, Aspire will allow a new level of cross-promotion, explained Anh Vu Sawyer, Executive Director of SEACMA. “It will give the children the opportunity to choose what they want to do,” she said. âThe agencies will promote opportunities for other groups.
To be eligible for Aspire, students must be at a college in Worcester and engage in a five-day program – three days in person and two virtual days. Ramirez indicated that they chose this particular age group because they usually don’t have the option of having personalized programs. Children in middle school age are in a developmental transition and sometimes need significant support to start the school year off right – summer reading, STEM, critical thinking skills. “All of this will help them not only in school but in life.”
Krystal Barrera, LEI Trainee Staff, is a Summer Reading Specialist who will lead the Virtual Summer Reading Program on Mondays and Fridays. This will be his fifth summer working in the LEI program and his first year working with all the other organizations participating in Aspire.
The theme of the Aspire program is “My Future Self as an Agent of Change” and aims to help children find themselves. To achieve this goal, Barrera plans to use books from the Worcester Schools Summer Reading List, such as “I Am Malala,” to help children see themselves as agents of change in their own lives. And it will link the ideas of STEM and environmental awareness.
Barrera strongly agrees that the LEI’s focus on high school students is justified, as these grades are such a change from elementary school. In Worcester, students move from grade six to a brand new school, so having a mentor can help them adjust.
âBy building relationships with students younger than me, my teaching style has certainly changed a lot. with a student if you don’t know him personally and believe he can achieve something.
Sawyer agreed that high school students “are kind of in-between” and often overlooked, while enrichment for high school and elementary students is emphasized. âCollege kids are a bit lost in this hazy space between childhood and adolescence – we don’t have an answer to that, but we can show we’re there for them. We are planning programs to nurture them and give them a safe place to know where they are at this age – we want to spark their imaginations, expand their creativity, and allow them to create something of their own.
Aspire’s SEACMA component focuses on Asian culture – Sawyer points out that their students will primarily be refugee children who will bring a unique perspective. âIt’s important in a city like Worcester which is so diverse, but people of color still face discrimination, misunderstanding and racism in our city. At the youth level, bringing them together and learning from each other is crucial, she said.
Saw Reh, a staff member in training at SEACMA, has led children to SEACMA for reading programs for the past four to five years; however, the creation of Aspire prompted him to become more involved. This is his first time as a staff member and he has shared that SEACMA has helped him and his family so he wants to give back. âI want the children and youth in our community to learn more about our cultures and each other. ”
Reh cares for Karenni and Karen refugee children from Myanmar and has taken courses in social / emotional skills for working with children, project-based learning and how to help them study. Her goal will be to help students read books in different languages ââand play learning games and hopes to bring her own primary-age children to Aspire when they are old enough.
The Aspire Community Academy has received enough funds to operate year round, from groups like the Worcester Community Action Council. In the fall, Ramirez hopes the programs can continue on weekends to complement classes at school. Whatever form it takes during the school year, at the end of the five week period, students will be invited to a celebration where they can show family and friends what they have created. during their stay with Aspire. MartÃnez looks forward to this, claiming that he “incorporates the personal identity not only of the child but of the parent, so that the whole family grows together”.