With classes canceled Wednesday as teachers attended professional development workshops, Akron students welcomed a day off school.
About 45 showed up anyway.
These at-risk freshmen were transported from their high school throughout the community, where they learned a valuable lesson: “Helping people,” said 14-year-old Devante White, shoving food into a box at the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.
Devante, a Kenmore High School freshman, joined 16 students at the food pantry. Other students volunteered in Copley Township at Brookdale Senior Living or at the Salvation Army in Akron.
The students are in Akron’s CTAG (Closing the Achievement Gap) program, which provides academic enrichment experiences and community support for struggling students and their families.
The 225 freshmen in the program are identified in eighth grade as at risk because of low test scores or behavioral issues. They’re selected from four high schools — East, Buchtel, North and Kenmore — with lower-than-average graduation rates in the city. Program participants are paired with mentors — employed by the school — to provide enriching experiences for students and to match their families with community resources.
The goal is to curtail dropouts and advance each student to 10th grade. Character-building is part of the process.
“I feel strongly that connecting kids to the community helps build assets,” said Carla Sibley, community outreach director for Akron schools and CTAG program coordinator.
This fall, Sibley expanded the program, now in its fourth year, to include more service learning projects, among them volunteer work at the food bank.
“They lay their hand on the food and it becomes real. This food is going out to a family in need,” said Laura Bennett, vice president and chief operating officer at the nonprofit agency. “It’s meaningful work. It’s going to make a difference.”
The kids entered the food bank shy and uneasy, said Sunday Atkinson, an Akron schools program specialist and Kenmore CTAG mentor. Once they started working, Atkinson witnessed a change.
“It’s like two different students,” Atkinson said as smiling students whirled around her with boxes and food in hand.
Funding issues limit program enrollment to about 25 percent of all eligible freshmen. Private donations and a Race to the Top grant, which expires this school year, afford seasonal outdoor learning experiences in the program at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Sibley touts the program’s positive outcomes as she actively seeks funding to continue the initiative.
An independent assessment conducted by Kent State University’s Research and Evaluation Bureau — an offshoot of the College of Education, Health and Human Services — confirmed Sibley’s praise. Program graduates are less likely to be absent from school compared with similarly performing students not in the program. When enrolled in outdoor enrichment programming at the national park, students advanced to 10th grade at an even higher rate, with more high school credits and fewer disciplinary infractions than other program participants.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.