COLUMBIA — On an April afternoon at Benton Elementary School, students with backpacks and a reserve of after-school energy headed to a computer lab at the back of the school.
One boy stopped in the doorway of the teachers' lounge, where Steve Witzig of MU's Office of Science Outreach sat.
"Hi, teacher," the boy said before rushing on.
"Hello," Witzig said back, waving and smiling. Soon, the two would build paper towers as part of a lesson in engineering.
Witzig, who is working toward a doctorate in science education at MU, is an assistant leader in Project Science, an after-school science program. He and program leader Deanna Lankford, as well as other academic tutors and mentors for struggling students in Columbia, are doing what they can to draw out the best from these students and help them learn in their own ways.
Test data have shown a correlation between students' household incomes and their academic performance.
Last year, The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card, showed that Missouri students from low-income homes did worse in reading than students from greater means. Reading levels are seen as important markers in looking at where students stand in their education.
In Columbia Public Schools, household income is a factor in a widening academic achievement gap. The number of students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program, a gauge of household income, verges on 39 percent.
Tutors and mentors who work with struggling students are not only trying to motivate them academically, but also engage them during idle after-school hours with activities and hands-on lessons. They are joined by an unstated philosophy to make life easier, the future brighter and motivation more tangible for the students.
"If you feel like you've come here with no purpose and no goal, then you ask, 'What's the point?' That's what these students think," said Dana Battison, executive director and founder of The Intersection, an after-school program. "And that's what we're trying to give them: the idea that there is purpose in life."
Looking beyond the income
At The Intersection, volunteers try to pay attention to how students learn, how they socialize and how they deal with life at home.
Each student comes with his or her own gaps that the program wants to fill, Battison said. That's how it helps struggling kids reach new levels of academic achievement and personal growth, she said.
On a cloudy Thursday afternoon this month, students ranging from about age 7 to their early teens crowded around a low table at The Intersection, housed in a former chapel next to Ridgeway Elementary School.
One student read "Bartholomew and the Oobleck," a Dr. Seuss story about a king discontent with the weather. Others read newspapers. Still others drew.
About 98 percent of the students involved in the program live at or below the poverty level, Battison said. Students qualify for free lunches if their household income is $29,055 or less for a family of four. Students qualify for reduced-price lunches if their household income is between $29,055 and $41,348 for a family of four.
Battison said she thinks the odds are increasingly stacked against these students as they age: Class sizes grow. School culture becomes more competitive. Students become a number rather than a person. Gaps in academic achievement widen. Self-esteem plummets.
Battison said that in her observation, school life is even tougher for low-income students because of external factors: taking care of siblings, holding jobs, having little time for homework and lacking a stable home life.
Going to school just has a lot more to it, she said.
"It's more than doing algebra. It's doing algebra and competing with those who don't have to go home and have siblings to take care of and have jobs to go to and all of these other things," Battison said. "You just can't pull the girl out of the home where she's an older sister to three other kids."
Battison said that because The Intersection provides both tutoring and mentoring, it serves as a bridge between students' school and after-school lives.
The program, which operates during the school year, provides students with tutors and computer programs to help them with studies. Staffers, most of whom are volunteers, take students on horseback-riding trips and join them to cook group dinners. They host classes that teach lessons and developmental basics such as responsibility, role-setting and positivity. They give students worksheets to keep track of their progress.
In March, about 70 students participated, Battison said; last year, 189 participated. There is also a summer session for students, from June 4 to July 27.
Battison has been at The Intersection since it opened in October 2003 and has worked at youth camps and groups for years. Her view is that classroom teachers should be more active in trying to understand where students are coming from and how they learn differently.
"A low-income child can be very different in their outlook and attitude than a middle-class child but be just as bright," Battison said. "Have high expectations for them, but understand that they can be different and that’s OK.”
Most important, she said, are the relationships developed over time with the students, which is a goal at The Intersection.
"A kid might have a problem and not say anything, but a person sitting down with them and helping them manage and problem-solve and find resources, that’s what’s important," Battison said. "And all of these come from a close relationship with someone who really, truly believes in them."
Taking care of the future
Kara Kort, supervisor at the Career Awareness Related Experience program, said her program exists to help students as they get older and start looking for jobs. Based in the Armory Sports and Recreation Center on East Ash Street, it has been a part of Columbia's Parks and Recreation since 1982.
CARE has a partnership with Missouri Options — a state program within Hickman, Rock Bridge and Douglass high schools — that helps struggling students graduate by individualizing their education and career pursuits. Students are chosen for the program at the schools and can choose to either take additional coursework or get a job in the community.
If they choose the latter, students are referred to CARE, where they can apply and interview to become a trainee and get a job with one of the local businesses affiliated with the program. The trainees are paid $7.25 an hour as city employees.
"That's what so great about this program," Kort said. "Our city is literally paying for the youth's experience. They're investing in their future. That's a big commitment."
Harmony Evans is among those who benefited. At 14, she didn't want to be sitting on her couch after school; she wanted to get a job. At Jefferson Junior High School, she joined CARE and started working for a former scrapbooking business.*
Evans, who graduated from Hickman High School in 2010, is now a job coach for Missouri Options during the school year and CARE's summer program, for teens 14 to 18.
Evans said there are about 50 Missouri Options trainees throughout the school year, and about 200 participants in the summer program. Kort said 180 will participate this summer.
Kort said that as the academic and workplace environments in the U.S. become more competitive, low-income students can easily fall behind. Programs such as CARE are there to help students earn a diploma and prepare for post-secondary educational plans, she said.
Kort emphasized, however, that it's important to avoid typecasting low-income students as being less capable or unable to act for themselves.
Evans said one motivating characteristic she has observed in low-income students is that they really need the money. Kort said a survey given in the summer of 2011 showed that 78 percent of program participants contributed their earnings to their family's income.
The students change dramatically if they find their spark — a solid income, a job they love, a passion for something that gives them reason to keep going, Evans said.
As a young but experienced worker at CARE, she sees the program's role as part mentor, part tutor, part life coach and part friend. If she could give any advice to a struggling student, she would tell them to just start doing something.
"You may not be good at something or know how to do something, but you've just got to do something to make it work," Evans said. "And there's always someone there to help you out. There's always someone who understands."
Building towers and bridges
Student education and success often circle back to elementary school, where basic lessons are taught and motivation can take root, said Deanna Lankford, the program leader of Project Science.
"A house can't be built without a foundation," Lankford said. "The same thing goes for a child's education."
This year, Benton became a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, school, which means it emphasizes those subjects. The school, on Hinkson Avenue, also has the highest percentage of students eligible for the school lunch program: about nine in 10 children.
Witzig and Lankford got involved after Benton came to the MU College of Education's Office of Science Outreach team for assistance. On Mondays, the team goes to Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School to help teach fourth- and fifth-graders how to collaborate and solve problems related to science. On Wednesdays, the team is at Benton. In total, between 75 and 90 students participate.
On the day of the tower-building lesson, about 30 Benton students clustered into the computer lab for Project Science. Backpacks lined the base of one wall. Posters urged creativity and inspiration. Undergraduate volunteers from MU leaned casually over the low tables or stood handing out the students' notebooks called "My Benton Elementary Science Club Notebook."
In the engineering exercise, students made the towers of folded paper and tape. Higher and higher the towers went. When one finally collapsed, the group that had built it fell silent, their faces portraits of disappointment. The other groups giggled.
It was a competition — but it was fun and collaborative, which is what Lankford wanted.
"So, did everyone feel like an engineer today?" Witzig asked.
"Yes!" filled the room.
Witzig said later that when the kids said that, he knew he had made a difference and taught a lesson. "It's those moments that are so important," he said. "They really can be interested."
Lankford said they've achieved their goal if they can pique a student's interest and draw it out week by week. She said that in the environment of a STEM school, science is the perfect way to connect to students and to make them want to learn, be good collaborators and better themselves — even at a young age.
"We use science all the time. Whether it's about toothpaste or granola bars, it's all about problem solving — that's science," Lankford said. "But it's more than just science. If nothing else comes out of this, I want that these youngsters to see science not just as a collection of facts but rather as a new way to think of their world."