By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
BOX ELDER - While many kids her age are spending their summer days in front of a TV set or basking in the sun, 11-year old Makaela Ochoa is spending four days a week in the classroom at Box Elder School. And Ochoa is not alone. She's one of more than 60 students involved in Box Elder's summer school program.
"It's really fun. I've learned a lot about writing," Ochoa said. "I like art class. We get to color and draw and make quilts."
In the past, the six-week-long summer school curriculum focused on the academic basics - reading, writing and math. The classes were geared toward kids like Ochoa, at the elementary and middle school age level.
Now the program is reaching out to high school students as well, with opportunities for the students to retake courses they failed or did not complete in the past school year. The credit-recovery classes give students a second chance to pass required classes needed to graduate from high school.
"It keeps them on course for graduation if they've failed a course throughout the school year," said Mike Topolosky, a high school math teacher in Box Elder. "So if a kid really wants to graduate from high school, they have no excuse not to because of this program."
Box Elders teachers said the credit-recovery program has had a big impact, helping to prevent at-risk students from potentially dropping out of school after failing a required class.
"We've had a couple students come back to retake classes," said science teacher Melanie Schwarzbach. "We hope this academic boost in the summer will help them come back in the fall so they can graduate."
Stacy Herries, a high school teacher at Box Elder, said she was thrilled when two students who received incompletes in their English class during the past school year returned for summer school to finish the required coursework.
"They spent four hours here every day for two weeks doing English," Herries said. "And now they're finished."
Herries is one of a dozen Box Elder teachers who returned to school on June 1 to teach the summer classes.
"It's fun," said Alma Swan, a teacher working with the third- and fourth-graders. "The students I have this year are excited to be here and hungry to learn."
That's a sentiment shared by many other teachers. "It's wonderful. Most of the kids are here because they want something to do and they're getting educated in addition to having fun," said Darin Hannum, who works with the middle school students.
The summer school is funded largely by a $100,000 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant. Box Elder is one of 21 school districts in Montana that received one of the grants. The federal funds are aimed at expanding academic enrichment programs that help students meet local and state academic standards.
The Box Elder summer school program offers students more than just academics in the classroom. Each afternoon is set aside for fun and recreation, with events ranging from bowling and swimming to a hike in the Bear Paws. But there is a catch: Only students who attend the academic classes in the morning are eligible to participate in the afternoon activities.
"It gets them excited to come to class," said Kevin Barsotti, a counselor for Box Elder Schools.
The students don't receive grades at the end of the six-week program. Instead they take entrance and exit exams, which help measure the progress they've made. Barsotti said the simple goal of the summer school program is to improve student achievement.
"It helps them continue to progress and move on with their academic skills," said Barsotti. "It gives them the opportunity to start off on a good foot in the fall."