September 15, 2014
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Gist: Summer learning not a replica of school
Jennifer Rodrigues
Jennifer Rodrigues
FOLLOW THE LEADER: Education Commissioner Deborah Gist follows two young campers at Camp Ok-Wa-Nessett during her tour of the camp’s grounds at the Kent County YMCA. Gist enjoyed spending time with the group of 20 campers as they searched for frogs.

During last week’s preview of Kent County YMCA’s Camp Ok-Wa-Nessett, 20 young children were joined by an unexpected guest on their hunt for frogs at the camp’s pond.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist visited the camp last Wednesday to see how the Kent County facility helps students learn over the summer and had the opportunity to meet with the small group of children participating in the preview week.

Gist has visited a different facility at the start of each summer since she became commissioner as a way to highlight the various summer learning opportunities throughout the state. Gist has previously visited Save The Bay and YMCA facilities in Providence and Newport.

A strong believer in the idea that learning never takes a vacation, Gist is hoping to keep parents informed about the different activities throughout the state to encourage learning in the summer months.

Her office has even released a fact sheet of summer learning that lists summer activities in the areas of academic enrichment, academic support, environment and outdoors, museums and zoos, recreation programs, summer camps, and theater, visual and performing arts.

Gist’s visit to Camp Ok-Wa-Nessett was her first to the Kent County facility, and she was excited to see all of the great experiences campers could have. Gist could not wait to explore the 117-acre campground located behind the main facility on Centerville Road.

“It’s amazing! I had no idea this was here,” said Gist. “It is great because it gives kids the chance to come outside and be connected to nature.”

Gist joined a group of young children between the ages of 5 and 7 as they hunted for frogs along the camp’s pond. She hiked with them through the trees along the water and even got down on her knees in the sand to point out tadpoles and snails at the water’s edge.

Gist says getting the kids out into nature or participating in other hands-on activities helps to make summer learning a different experience from sitting in a classroom.

“We don’t want it to be a replica of school,” said Gist about summer learning. “Although, I would love for school to be like this.”

Executive Director of Kent County Y Paula Jacobson explained that since the school year was ending later than usual, the preview week only had about 20 students participating. But that would not last.

“We are prepping for a full load on Monday,” said Jacobson.

She said the camp would host close to 500 kids from preschool age to teenagers on an average summer day. The preview week not only gives campers a taste of what a full week or two-week program would be like, but it also gives Jacobson the chance to make sure the facility and counselors are prepared.

Kent County Y services the communities of Warwick, West Warwick, Coventry and East Greenwich.

Camp Ok-Wa-Nessett, which has been in operation since at least the 1950s, according to Jacobson, gives campers the opportunity to swim in the pond, go hiking, play sports, try their skills at archery, play camp games, use the skate park, take advantage of the high and low ropes course, complete arts and crafts activities, and play in the facility’s Spray Park.

Cory Guglietti, operations director at Kent County Y, said Camp Ok-Wa-Nessett is open to children between preschool ages and 16. He added that the younger kids follow a set program with a schedule of activities, but the older campers have more freedom with what they do each day.

Gist believes that aspects of summer learning at camps or other summer programs can relate back directly to the new common core standards, especially in subjects like science.

She is looking at creating a shared training program with YMCA professionals and educators.

“It would be the folks in education going through a counselor-type training to incorporate activities like this in an appropriate way for the school year,” said Gist.

While that shared training is a ways down the road, Gist is creating her own summer learning challenge, incorporating schools’ summer reading goals with an interesting reward.

Before the end of the school year, Gist sent a letter to all school principals and librarians detailing her Summer Reading Challenge, ‘Dive Into a Book.’

In an effort to encourage students to reach their school’s individual summer reading goals, which normally vary from school to school, Gist created this challenge, which awards a point to each student that completes or exceeds his or her summer reading goal. Additional points will be awarded to students who complete summer reading goals from their local public library.

In September, the principal (or other faculty member) from the participating schools that have met or exceeded their summer reading goals will skydive with Gist. The students from the winning schools will be invited to witness the jump.

The Warwick Public Library is on board with the commissioner’s challenge. The library kicked off their summer reading programs on Saturday, which includes the Groundbreaking Reads program for students in grades seven through 12 and Children’s Dig Into Reading for ages 2 to 12.

According to Diane Greenwald, director of the Warwick Public Library, over 1,500 kids participated in the summer reading program last year.

“I think the more encouragement for reading in the summer and visiting the library, the better,” said Greenwald. “We welcome the commissioner’s support.”

Ellen O’Brien said 411 kids signed up for Dig Into Reading on day one, and she expects that number to grow. Through the program, children keep track of the number of days they read on a reading log provided by the library. Every seven days that the child reads, they can check into the library at the summer reading desk and receive a prize. The first check-in earns them a Reader Explorer Card, which gives them free admission into attractions throughout Rhode Island for the summer.

O’Brien explained that although the “goal” is to have children reading every day for the entire summer, participants complete the program after reading for five weeks. When they check in on the fifth week, they receive a paperback book, certificate of completion and a free ticket to a PawSox game.

“The PawSox actually went around and set it up so each community has a specific night,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien added that participants can continue the program after the five weeks. If a student makes it to week eight, they will receive a raffle ticket and be entered into a drawing for a free bike.

“The good thing about this program is the schools can use the library’s goal as their own,” said O’Brien, who says the staff at the library keeps track of the student, what school they attend and if they complete the program. A list of students who complete the program will be sent to their school.

As for the teenagers, O’Brien explained that Groundbreaking Reads keeps track of pages read as opposed to days.

“It ties nicely into their summer reading since those students are required to read something,” said O’Brien.

As students reach a certain number of pages read, they will be able to select prizes from a goodie box in the teen library, including T-shirts, gift cards, books and more.

Gist says she was inspired to create Dive Into A Book after she witnessed a principal from a Providence school eat a worm when his students completed a reading goal. The students were reading the novel, “How To Eat Fried Worms,” at the time, which inspired the event.

“[The] students knocked the reading goal out of the park,” said Gist.

She doesn’t know why, but Gist finds students are motivated to complete different goals if a principal or teacher will do something outrageous as a result.

“For some time, Commissioner Gist has wanted to skydive, and she thought doing so with other educators could be a fun way to encourage students to meet their summer learning goals,” said Elliot Krieger, director of communications for RIDE.

Although no schools from Warwick have decided to participate in the Dive Into A Book challenge, Krieger says they have had a great response and a number of schools have signed up.


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