September 21, 2014
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150 elementary students to get taste of ‘university’ work
Jennifer Rodrigues

This Saturday, a group of 150 advanced elementary school students in grades three through six will get the chance to experience special learning workshops during ALAP University at Pilgrim High School. ALAP, Accelerated Learning Activities Program, is a program within the Warwick public elementary schools that provides additional learning opportunities to students who are determined to have advanced learning capabilities.

During the program, which lasts from 9:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. or 3:15 p.m. depending on individual class schedules, students will be able to participate in unique, experiential learning workshops that they otherwise may not get the opportunity to have. "It started off as a means for these students to have access to a larger after-school program, which takes the form of a college experience because they have the opportunity to select their own classes," says Ted Larson, ALAP University committee chairperson and former Gifted And Natural Talent (GATE) PTA president. "The feedback we get back each year from the kids is great."

For those who pre-registered, the cost to attend the program was $25. Pre-registered students also had the opportunity to select their top three choices for each time period. Students will participate in two or three classes depending on the length of each presentation; a handful of classes require two time periods. Since space in each class is limited, GATE PTA, which sponsors ALAP, took students' requests and worked for three hours to fill each session and determine schedules; they aimed to provide each student with at least one of their number one choices. Popular classes include Lego Robots, where students learn basic engineering skills and build a robot, the various sessions about animals and a chess course. All Request Internet Radio, which will allow students to broadcast live over the Internet, was another popular option.

While 150 students are registered to attend, students in the ALAP program who missed the deadline are allowed to participate as walk-ins. The cost for walk-ins is $40, and they will only be allowed to choose from classes with open seats. The money raised from both pre-registration and walk-ins goes to offset the cost of the program.

Professionals from a variety of organizations, including Roger Williams Park Zoo, Audubon Society of Rhode Island and Old Sturbridge Village, lead many of the classes. Other instructors are professionals, teachers or parents experienced in the area they are teaching, such as art or chess. A total of 22 courses are offered, falling under the following categories: art & theater, life sciences, social sciences, science & engineering and general interests.

"We are providing access to things they wouldn't normally have access to," explains Larson, who has the chance to see the importance of ALAP up close, first with his son Spencer and now with his daughter Abigail.

In addition to the experience at ALAP University, an event that has occurred annually for several years, students enrolled in ALAP are taken out of their regular classes for one period each week for activities and projects; these assignments do not have an effect on grades. There are three teachers designated for ALAP and each is responsible for teaching the program at certain schools. Although they have no set classroom and must travel from school to school, Lawson says these teachers have created an environment to help ALAP students foster skills they will keep with them through junior high, high school and beyond.

Stephanie Shuster, GATE PTA treasurer, explained that there is a selection process students must go through to join ALAP. Beginning in 2nd grade, teachers recommend students for enrollment, and those students are then tested in subjects such as reading and math, as well as aptitude. If selected, students begin the program when they enter third grade, and must maintain their grades and perform well on NECAP exams to remain enrolled. Even if a child is not recommended in 2nd grade for the program, Shuster explained that they are still eligible. For example, their fourth grade teacher may recommend them, which would allow them the chance to join in fifth grade. No matter when they become eligible, ALAP students will have a unique experience and gain valuable learning skills.

"They gain more independence," said Shuster, who is also a parent of a current ALAP student. "They are pulled out of the class to participate in different activities and games that stretch their imagination, while teaching them to stay on top of their work and catch up on work they missed from class."

Students are also assigned additional projects to work on outside of their ALAP period, in addition to their regular schoolwork. Students often have the opportunity to present those projects to classmates or at special citywide ALAP presentation nights. Larson also said that Wyman Elementary School, where his daughter is a student, has hosted special presentation nights for the Wyman ALAP students.

While the importance of this program is seen by those directly involved, Larson, Shuster and other parents are constantly battling to keep the program in existence. "It is always up for elimination because of the cost and because of the fact that it doesn't affect all of the students," explained Larson.

With about 270 students enrolled across 16 elementary schools, less than 20 per school, there is debate if the cost of maintaining such a program is worth it. Costs include the salaries of the teachers and running ALAP University. According to Larson, there are so many programs aimed at helping students in the middle that the opposite ends of the bell curve don't always get the same treatment. He believes that should not be the case.

"The greater good is that these students have natural talent that should be nurtured," says Larson. "These kids are born with a certain skill set and, hopefully, they are given the tools to expand that."

Shuster has been lucky enough to experience the ALAP program with her daughter, Greta, who is in the fourth grade at Warwick Neck Elementary and her second year of the program. Greta even took part in ALAP University last year, focusing mainly on classes involving animals. "She had a great time; she came home so excited," said Shuster.

Greta will be participating in this year's program, and is very excited to take part in both an improvisation acting class and a theatrical make-up class.

"She will probably come home with her face all made-up," joked Shuster.

Larson's fifth grade daughter Abigail is not only excited to take part in a painting class during this weekend's program, but is excited to be a part of the same program she saw her older brother succeed at.

"She got to see her brother do it and was thrilled when she got to do it too," said Larson.

As a parent, Larson has seen the advantage ALAP gave his son. Larson believes this program helped Spencer, now a freshman in the honors program at Bishop Hendricken High School, be prepared for his transition to both junior high and high school. "He gained the appreciation for being able to do a research project, to be cognizant of time management and to do work at a junior high level," said Larson about Spencer's completion of the program.

While their parents see ALAP as an advantage for their future, these students are just excited for their experience at ALAP University this weekend. Check-in begins at 8 a.m. on Saturday in the cafeteria at Pilgrim High School. All participants must be present and registered by 9:15 for opening remarks. It can take 15 minutes to check-in, so plan accordingly. Snacks and lunch are provided, but students with special diets or allergies are encouraged to bring a bagged lunch.


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