It’s rare that middle schoolers would trade a week of summer vacation for an extra dose of math and language arts, but then again almost everything about UGA’s Middle School Enrichment Program is rare.
It brought 13 rising sixth, seventh and eighth graders to campus for one week to prepare them for the upcoming school year. Its pilot run started in July as a collaboration between the Office of Institutional Diversity and Hill Chapel Baptist Church.
And while encouraging Athens-area youth to attend college is nothing new for the OID, the focus on middle school-aged students marks a paradigm shift, said Joan Pittman, OID’s assistant director for programs and outreach.
“It’s something that the OID was looking forward to doing, because so many programs that we sponsor deal exclusively with high school students. It’s nice and important to remember that we can start younger with students,” she said.
Middle schoolers are often left in a nebulous zone, floating free from initiatives that tend to target elementary students and high school students, said the Rev. Michael Gerald, who helped start the program at Hill Chapel. After talking it over with the church, he came to UGA to solicit cooperation. The move had precedence: the OID ran a middle school program years ago, under the leadership of former director Tracey Ford.
“We created a program where we could show the children how education fits into the rest of their lives,” Gerald said. “The kids were given lots of instruction in reading and comprehension as well as math and sciences because we believe that this kind of work can directly impact their standardized test scores. If we can impact those scores, we can send the number of high school graduates up from where it currently is.”
UGA departments have joined forces with community groups before, most notably with the anti-poverty organization OneAthens (formerly known as Partners for a Prosperous Athens). But the Middle School Enrichment Program is narrower in focus. It hopes to target children with high potential to succeed and give them an extra push of skills and encouragement at an early age. If students can learn effective study strategies early, they can become leaders during their later school years, Gerald said.
“This year we focused on kids who were interested in the program because we had to have an audience initially, but as we’re going forward we’re looking to impact those kids who are most at risk of dropping out but who can perform on a higher academic level,” he said. “We want to show them that no matter where you come from, you can succeed.”
While on campus, the students learned new strategies for math and reading comprehension as well as computer skills and study tips. They also toured facilities across campus.
“One of the things that’s important is that we help the students make an academic plan, which many of them don’t have, especially at so young an age. But once they set goals, it gives them something to work toward,” Pittman said.
And work they did. Though students praised the program for its change of pace, many murmured about its rigor.
“It’s a lot like school. We do work,” said Michelle Leggette, a 13-year-old rising eighth grader at Clarke Middle School. “You get homework, too.”