‘Soaring Stars’ Program Showing Promise for School Children in Rural Areas

Megan Bell, executive director of the Marie C. & Joseph C. Wilson Foundation, visits with a student participating in SUNY Geneseo's "Soaring Stars" education program.

GENESEO, N.Y. -- Educators at SUNY Geneseo are hoping that a summer learning program for elementary-age students in rural areas -- especially those living at the poverty level -- will increase their chances of graduating from high school and advancing to a post-secondary education experience.

The Rochester-based Marie C. & Joseph C. Wilson Foundation awarded the college a $50,000 grant to initiate the "Soaring Stars" program last summer and is committed to an additional $50,000 in matching grants to continue the program for at least two more summers. The Geneseo Foundation and the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership also have provided program support.

The first group of students comprised 27 rising first-graders from nine rural school districts of Livingston County, who were selected by their district to participate. They brought a wide range of academic abilities, backgrounds and temperaments. Some had reading and writing skills; others were just learning them.

The students will be invited to return each summer through the sixth grade to gauge the effect the program has on their educational and social development. The students attend the summer program five days a week for six hours a day within a six-week period.

"We see differences in rural students compared to suburban students in such areas as literacy levels, background knowledge and vocabulary development," said Program Director Annmarie Urso, assistant professor of education in SUNY Geneseo's Ella Cline Shear School of Education. "We are using a method that really helps these children develop enthusiasm for learning, and we saw some very promising signs of progress."

Urso and her team of teachers and counselors employed instruction inspired by the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, which encourages children to develop individual interests and explore them using art, music, traditional subject instruction, and physical activities.

"In this approach, the child and his or her environment are as important as the teacher," said Urso. "The teacher helps children follow their interests. The development of motor skills, social skills and cognitive skills are all important precursors for academic success."

Urso relates an example of one girl who began exploring building blocks and became interested in building design and construction. A program counselor with a civil engineering background guided her on how buildings get built.

"This led to her drawing a design for a building and figuring out what blocks went together," said Urso. "It will be interesting to see next summer how she has progressed in the interest she developed. We get excited about the power and self-confidence such activities give a child."

Urso and her team will follow the core group of students, regardless of their abilities, to see if the outcomes are different based on their experience in the program.

"We also are sharing our impressions of the students with their kindergarten or first-grade teachers so they know what worked or didn't work in the summer program," she said. "We are gathering lots of qualitative data."

Both students and parents are giving "Soaring Stars" high marks. Some parents were reluctant to participate in the program because their children had a difficult year in school and they didn't want them to continue to feel badly about themselves. But by the end of the program, parents were calling to applaud the effort.

"The program is all about letting children follow their own interest and it's been a fascinating experience," said Urso. "We're looking forward to having them back."

The initial cohort of students in the program came from the following Livingston County school districts: Caledonia-Mumford; Avon; Livonia; Geneseo; York; Mt. Morris; Keshequa; Dansville; and Wayland-Cohocton.

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