County Officials Hear Review Of Summer Academies

SNOW HILL — Now that the school year is well underway, representatives from several of Worcester County Public Schools’ (WCPS) summer programs visited the Board of Education last week for a review of both STEM WOW and Summer Academies.
STEM WOW, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at the Worcester Technical High School (WTHS), was the latest addition to the county’s summer roster. The week-long program attracted 53 rising eighth graders and gave educators a chance to show off the facilities at WTHS, said Diane Stulz, coordinator of instruction.
“Mostly we saw the same thing. It gave them a reason to come to this school, which is one of the reasons we wanted our students to understand what was there, and the level of science they can learn while there,” she said.
Covering STEM-centric fields like biomedical, pre-engineering, alternative energies, interactive media and agriculture, the idea of the academy was to present students with a sampler of programs before they have to decide on whether or not to take any classes at WTHS. The students delved into topics like DNA, solar power, Photoshop, blueprint comprehension and plant fertilization.
“You can see that there’s a variety and there’s something for everybody,” said Stulz.
Students were polled on what programs they would like to see added next year, and Marlyn Barrett, coordinator of instruction, revealed that culinary and criminal justice programs are the top two contenders. Funding for next year’s STEM WOW has just recently been re-secured, Stulz confirmed. The itinerary for next summer is not decided yet, but both Stulz and Barrett are hoping for an expanded offering.
“The good news is, we received notification last week that we got our STEM grant for next year,” Stulz said. “We will be doing one week next year but we are really looking for that second week and would like to drop down and do rising sixth graders.”
The program is supported by a $60,000 state grant, though there are a number of spending restrictions with that money. Attendance for the first-ever STEM WOW was healthy, Stulz said, with the 53 total students who took part representing a relatively even mix of boys and girls with a significant number of minority students involved.
Transportation, a meal and all materials were provided for students through the grant funding. All grade-appropriate WCPS students are eligible for STEM WOW, Stulz added.
“Any student could apply. There were no parameters,” she said. “If you want to come to the academy this summer you are welcome to come.”
Besides STEM WOW, WCPS students had the opportunity to take part in the traditional Summer Academy at each individual school. Unlike STEM WOW, the Summer Academies have been available for three years. This year saw a dip in attendance but not a worrisome one, according to Tamara Mills, coordinator of instruction.
“A conversation did occur about the fact that we did have a decrease in our summer school participation in this last year,” she told the board. “We’ve gone from 959 students last year in our summer program to only 894 this year.”
Mills doesn’t “necessarily see that as a negative,” however, for two reasons. The first is that the market for summer enrichment programs is becoming more crowded with private and community organizations showing a greater presence. While such clubs might peel off a few students from what WCPS offers, they also tend to harmonize well with school programs.
“So we are seeing some community organizations popping up to, I don’t want to say give the school system a hand, but to offer things that we might not offer,” said Mills. “We see that happening a little bit and I don’t see that as a negative because they work in partnership with us on a lot of things.”
One other explanation for the lower rate of participation might also be viewed in a positive light, said Mills. Extended school administrators have been doing a better job focusing less on bulk numbers and more on attracting students who would benefit the most from the Summer Academy.
“Are we getting the students in our summer school programs that need to be there?” Mills asked, adding that she believes administrators do a better job on that count every year.
Even with the drop in overall participation, attendance of involved students stayed a steady 86 percent, which Mills confirmed was the highest rate the Summer Academy program has seen in its three years.
After treating the Board of Education to the generalities, Mills introduced Theresa Torpey, the assistant principal for Stephen Decatur Middle School. Torpey provided insight into how her school handles its Summer Academy, which focused on science and technology in grades six through eight.
“How do you get students involved in STEM?” she asked. “You give them a problem to solve and that’s exactly what we did.”
The problem was a simple one: launch a marshmallow. But students were tasked with building a complex solution in the form of a Rube Goldberg machine, one of which they brought in for a live demonstration at the meeting.