Just inside the eastern edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a group of Akron students study the biotic integrity of Haskell Run, which flows west into the Cuyahoga River.

Another group surveys the impact of stormwater flooding on groundwater pollution near Akron’s sewage-treatment plant.

It’s not the typical summer classroom. And these aren’t typical students.

Amid the various learning modules from soil types to topographical mapping, these 35 students have been immersed in an enriching educational experience in a wilderness that feels far from home.

“I didn’t even know this was here,” said Brandon Tuck-Hayden, a 14-year-old making the pivotal transition to high school at Buchtel CLC.

“The majority of them have never even heard of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park or knew that it’s just 10 miles from where they live,” said Ameeca Holmes, a mentor for Akron Public Schools’ Closing the Achievement Gap (CTAG) program — a yearlong educational initiative that focuses on at-risk ninth- and 10th-graders.

The CTAG program identifies students, mostly black, who tend to lag national and state standards. They’ve missed 36 or more days of school, have had an out-of-school suspension, have failed two or more core subjects on state tests, or are at risk of being held back.

The goal is to provide more than just the remediation needed to get them through ninth grade. The program aims to promote appropriate behavior and instill a strong work ethic. It also teaches students and their parents about earning high school credits for graduation and where to find support along the way.

The interactive curriculum is designed to encourage teamwork and strong communication.

“Something about the program was attractive to the kids. Hands-on learning is much easier to wrap their heads around,” said Stacey Heffernan, director of the Environmental Education Center at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. “Instead of being remedial, it’s motivated toward that desire to learn.”

For the past three years, Heffernan’s staff and park employees, including two park rangers, have led Akron students through the forest in a hands-on approach to learning for young teenagers who have seen little beyond their urban neighborhoods.

This year, incoming ninth-graders from East, Kenmore, Buchtel and North high schools were selected from a larger group of nearly 200 students in the districtwide CTAG program.

Breaking through

The students come from neighborhoods marred by drugs, violence and poverty. Some live in broken homes with waning parental support. “The list continues,” Jerome Moss, an Akron schools program specialist and mentor to a group of CTAG students from East, said of the odds stacked against them.

Their backgrounds often offer little support or guidance as families and students struggle to prioritize education. “Most of these kids are labeled as ‘they-won’t-make-it,’?” Moss said.

That’s something the CTAG program attempts to remedy. And so far, the results have been encouraging.

An independent assessment conducted by Kent State University’s Research and Evaluation Bureau — an offshoot of the College of Education, Health and Human Services — indicates that program graduates are less likely to be absent from school compared with similarly performing students not in the program. Participants earn more class credits on average in ninth grade, resulting in higher 10th grade advancement rates.

The results are even more noticeable for the select group who attend the two-week summer workshop in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The only measure that hasn’t shown improvement is discipline, with all at-risk students spending six days out of school for suspensions, regardless of program participation.

Throughout their freshman year, mentors like Moss provide a direct resource link for each CTAG student, as well as parents and family members.

As an incentive to participate, students who attend the two-week summer workshop with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and maintain perfect attendance throughout, earn a half credit toward high school.

“For some of the kids, that’s the difference between getting into 10th grade or not,” Heffernan said.

Future limitations

Heffernan said the two-week nature program, a small part of the yearlong CTAG program, costs about $90,000, mostly funded through a grant from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation.

Transportation costs are the largest expense.

The program would be more economical if other districts besides Akron participated, Heffernan said.

For Akron schools, funding from a Race to the Top grant that supports the CTAG program is entering its fourth and final year. And even that grant doesn’t allow the district to serve every qualifying student.

Carla Sibley, community relations director at Akron schools, said 25 percent of the nearly 640 students who qualify for the program will be served this coming year. It’s as much of a funding limitation as it is a lack of willingness to participate on the part of parents and students.

“It’s a limitation of the capacity to serve all, given the resources available. And sometimes it’s an issue of making good connections with students and families,” Sibley said.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.