On a quiet summer morning, a Hall-Kent Elementary classroom is filled with 18 kids spanning six grades. This day, like the others before it and more to come, they start with familiar words that roll out of their mouths in unison.
“I am a Hall-Kent Patriot who will RISE,” they recite together. “I am a Risk-taking Individual who Strives for Excellence. I accept the challenges to become the best that I can be.”
“Yesterday’s failures are behind me,” they say. “Today’s success is now in front of me. I will make today the very best.
“With my family and teachers I will determine what I will become, for the education I receive today will make me a leader of tomorrow.”
“I will believe in myself. I will RISE!!”
This is the creed and the mindset that begins each day at RISE, an enrichment program that is now in its fourth year. Its mission in some ways is to bridge the “summer slide” achievement gap that forms in time off between school years, one that generally grows wider and wider for some students who might otherwise spend their summers sitting on the job with their parents or on screens. After all research shows children from low-income families lose two to three months of reading proficiency each summer. Just as teacher Kornelia McDaniel first envisioned it, RISE helps a select group of students transition from one grade to the next with hands-on math, reading, writing, and character education.
Each morning for six weeks the Hall-Kent students come to school in the mornings for teacher-led activities, and then they take a bus to the Mountain Brook YMCA for Zumba dancing, tennis, swimming and all sorts of activities for the remainder of the day. Last summer Kornelia had eight kindergarten to second graders for the program, and fellow teacher Faith Whitlock had ten in grades third through fifth. For the teachers, it’s intimate but still feels big.
And it’s a whole lot of fun too. Last summer HMS teacher Erin Klotz led RISE students in science experiments, and Hall-Kent teacher Brooklyn McManus brought art activities. Elizabeth Choi and Justin Wallace from The Dance Foundation used dancing and music to help them learn about nouns and verbs, and “I get into it too,” Kornelia says.
Volunteer Julie Gentry worked with the students to plant a tower garden they harvested and cooked from this summer, and in the spring as a part of an after-school component of RISE two days a week for the school year, they took a field trip to eat at Ash restaurant after learning about etiquette. At first the students fussed about only having three choices on their special menu, but in the end they loved it. “We had talked to them about if you yell at a restaurant to the waiter across the room and what you can do while you are waiting for your food,” Kornelia says, noting that they got to put their lessons into action.
Middle school volunteers often join in too, reading or playing math games with the younger kids while the teacher pulls individuals for more concentrated time, or playing chess and reading chapter books with the older kids. “And they love it!” Kornelia says.
During share time, students can share anything and everything about their life. Sometimes it’s what they played over the weekend, others it’s that they got to see their mom or keep their siblings while their parent worked.
There’s no set curriculum for the summer. Instead the teachers assess what each kid needs from their teacher the previous year and from a testing program called STAR, and then they teach accordingly, noting areas where each student needs either academic or emotional support. “I can see the struggles or things they need, and then they tell you and know what they need to work on it,” Faith says.
“Mine will say, ‘I don’t know it and I hate it.’ And I will say, ‘But we’re going to love it by the end!” Kornelia says, beaming with a determined enthusiasm as she speaks as if she is assuring her students.
Three years ago, Kornelia had been teaching kindergarten within the same four walls at Hall-Kent Elementary for 14 years when she felt like she needed to do more to connect with children outside of the classroom. So she looked to Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty and started to present on it within Homewood City Schools, but still she wanted to do more, to become a special person that students in poverty could really trust and respect in their school. That’s when the brainstorm started: a lengthy list of programs and curriculum. Her principal advised her to start with a summer program, so that’s just what she did with the help of a grant from the Homewood City Schools Foundation.
Today, Kornelia and Faith are quick to emphasize that there’s a whole community behind RISE, from administrators to teachers to community partners. EL teachers Abby Becker and Stacy Brooks translate to help them communicate with RISE parents. Teaching assistant Mary Jo Hipps connected them with getting snacks through her husband Tracy’s position at Christian Service Mission. Grace Fellowship Church provides hot breakfast twice a week in the summer.
“It is never one man’s job, although it might be one person’s dream,” Kornelia says. “My dream was a seed, but in order for it to grow it needed soil, water, sunlight.
The program is funded in part through Hall-Kent’s Title I funds for the teachers and grants from organizations like SAILS, Kiwanis and Trinity United Methodist, but they are always looking for community supporters.
When summer ends and school starts again, the RISE kids now have a story to tell. Some of their classmates come back with stories of their camps and travels, and the RISE kids have collected tales of Zumba classes, science experiments, dancing, swimming and more, all with their RISE family.
One current fifth grader didn’t know how to swim three years ago when he started in the RISE program, but today he makes his way through the water with confidence. “If this hadn’t been in place for him, would that have been the case for him?” Faith asks.
STAR testing data from the end of the summer shows that RISE is doing what it set out to do, but more than the barometer of change is intangible the teachers see in the kids. It’s about an increase in respect and trust—and really starting to believe the words of the RISE creed they recite each morning, that they will succeed and determine what they will become.
“Who RISE?” Kornelia will call out.
“We RISE!” the kids respond in unison.
So as they learn numbers and letters, reading and multiplication, the refrain remains the same.
“We gotta rise,” their teachers tell them.
And indeed they do.
To learn more about RISE and keep up with its activities, follow @hkesrise on Instagram.