A whoosh of summer air blew past the smiling faces of Joyce Coats’ third grade class Wednesday afternoon as they played “parachute” on Benton Elementary School’s playground.
The sun heated the pavement beneath the students’ feet as they clung to the black nylon handles while launching the multi-colored parachute overhead, using teamwork to maintain a steady rise and fall.
The students at Benton were outside as part of Coats’ sports adventure class, an extension of the Newton Summer Learning Program. Although Benton and Blue Ridge elementary schools were equipped with air conditioning this year, the unusually mild weather has made the typical summer heat less of an issue.
“Usually at summer school we’re fighting heat and we’ve been really lucky that the temperatures are nice and cool, not to mention the new air conditioning is helping tremendously,” Troy Hogg, Benton principal, said.
This summer marks the fifth year the Newton Summer Learning Program has been used in Columbia Public Schools. This year, 14 schools are utilizing the program, two more than last year.
It is now possible for more students to study in their home schools, where they study during the normal academic year.
The new air conditioning systems cost $1.5 million each, according to an estimate by Superintendent Phyllis Chase. The funding came from a $60 million bond issue approved by voters in April 2007.
With additional summer school sites, student attendance is also rising. Roy Moeller, regional manager for the Newton program, said that 300 more students enrolled this year from last year. The total amount of students in the K-8 program is about 5,700.
Students enroll in classes that provide structure and encourage retention through the summer. A seven-hour school day consists of core classes such as mathematics, reading and social studies in the morning and adventure classes such as rocket-building and sports in the afternoon.
Moeller said the adventure classes are aimed at teaching basic skills in a more entertaining way, and all classes offered are designed to mirror the district’s curriculum. In the classroom, teachers can enjoy teaching in a more relaxed setting.
“It’s a little less pressure than the regular school year because you don’t have to worry about all the assessments like MAP testing,” Hogg said. “We’re just enjoying teaching.”
To encourage attendance, students can also receive daily attendance prizes. Daily prizes are done in a raffle-style so the student must be present that day to have his or her name entered.
Moeller said principals are given spending cards and are able to buy unique prizes that best fit their students. Prizes can vary from small robotics to gift cards for movies and stores or, in Benton’s case, a Nintendo Wii.
At Benton, first-time principal Troy Hogg sees the prizes as motivation for the students to have good attitudes and listen in class.
Student Ruby Hall is hoping to win a prize again this year. Last year, she won the game “Sorry!”
The prize case at Benton is located in a high traffic area. Hogg said the case encourages students to come to school everyday and work to win a prize.
“They may never win that prize, but the biggest prize of all is learning,” he said.
Students are also eligible for large attendance rewards at the end of the four-week program. If a student does not miss any class, he or she will receive a $100 shopping card. If the student misses seven hours — the equivalent of one day — he or she will receive a $75 card. Finally, up to 14 hours — missing only two full days of class — the student will receive a $50 shopping card. Moeller said that 70 to 75 percent of students will receive a form of reward.
Students who receive these shopping cards are encouraged to donate the amount of their card to local charities. Moeller said the district facilitates the donation of card amounts to the Ronald McDonald House, but students can act individually if they wish to make a contribution to another location.
Although these students are giving up part of their summer vacation, the program provides an avenue for a safe environment as well as a learning environment.
“I think it’s fun because we made a pirate hat today and we make different stuff everyday,” Ruby said.