BLAST campers have fun, keep learning

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Allen Clement, 11, and Robert Desantis, 10, were discussing how many “reallys” it would take to describe how fun camp is and finally decided that it would take seven.

United Ways’ Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative (HSLI), Bringing Learning and Service Together, is a six-week day camp for students in 4th through 6th grade and works to reduce summer learning loss.

When students aren’t actively engaged in summer learning they can lose up to two months worth of math skills, and for those in low income families students can lose an additional two months worth of reading skills.

Now in its fifth year, United Way funds 17 HSLI programs in 12 communities serving more than 1,600 students statewide.

Warwick’s BLAST camp, hosted at the Boys and Girl’s Club across from Oakland Beach Elementary, is in its second year and growing. Last year, the camp enrolled 14 students and this year that’s more than doubled to 38 students.

At the beginning and end of the camp students take a test to see if they have experienced learning loss and, according to Joseph Morra, senior project manager for summer learning at United Way, not only did the majority of students see little to no learning loss over the six weeks but many of them also saw improvement.

“We aren’t just mitigating summer learning loss. Gains are being made in this program,” he said.

Collectively, in 2014 the students in the program saw a 35 percent increase in literacy skills and 47 percent increase in mathematics skills.

This year, Warwick’s BLAST camp was funded by a $25,000 grant from United Way.

Karin Kavanagh, associate executive director of the Boys & Girls Club, said this year the students are focusing on an engineering curriculum created by the Boston Museum of Science. They have been designing and creating toy cars out of recycled materials, which they regularly test on a ramp to see how they can improve.

“They got them to roll, but now it’s how do we get them to roll straight, roll faster,” she said.

She said that every student who didn’t age out of the program or move away returned this year.

Brenna Maine, 11, said the best part is no one associated with the camp is “mean.” They all get along “no matter what you like or what you are like.”

Once a week a librarian from the Warwick Public Library comes in to work with the students on the Summer Reading Challenge and every day after lunch students get time to read.

“The best thing is we get to read every day,” Lily Soares, 10, said, “I love, love, love to read and I get to bring my books.”

Ethan Quirico, 11, and Devin Bealieu, 10, said with something new to do every day, like making volcanoes or bridges out of Popsicle sticks, you can’t help but have fun.

“This program is academic at its core, but not at the expense of fun,” Morra said.

Another important component to the camp is each program has a service-learning project.

Sandi Connors, executive vice president and director of Strategic Marketing and Communications at Unites Way, said in comparison to students just doing a community service one-time project, service learning gives them the “ voice and choice” on deciding what problem within their community they want to tackle.

“They become invested and take ownership,” Connors said. “They have the opportunity to be leaders, and at the end they have something tangible they can point to and take pride in.”

Kavanagh explained that this year students are continuing the Oakland Beach cleanup project they did last year but are also refurbishing the garden in front of Oakland Beach Elementary, building a bench and planting new plants to brighten up the area. Materials were donated by Lowe’s, and because many campers attend Oakland Beach they will make sure the garden is maintained throughout the school year.

Director of Elementary Education Lynn Dambruch visited the program Wednesday morning and said she was very impressed with the BLAST camp.

“It’s great that they have the ability to create something and then learn the skills to analyze the results to make their cars faster,” she said. “They are learning a lot of concepts and having a lot of positive experiences with learning.”

Connors hopes the program will continue to grow and help students across Rhode Island.

“Students learn something about themselves, that their opinion counts, and that translates into the school year,” Connors said. “They see themselves as engaged civic students.”

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