Helping students start their year off strong and find success

Helping students start their year off strong and find success

Eight-year-old Jaeden* is having a rough morning, but he doesn’t know why.

He’s excited to go to summer camp, but he can’t focus or sit still. Thankfully, he knows there’s somewhere he can go to calm down – the designated Safe Place in his classroom at his summer camp at Unleashing Potential.

The Safe Place is comfortable and inviting, and it gives him the time and space away from distractions to focus on himself. He chooses a stuffed animal to be his buddy. Its face looks worried, and it helps Jaeden realize that he feels worried, too.

Breathe in, breathe out. He knows he’s safe. In a few minutes, he feels ready to join his class in a fun STEM activity, ready to learn and grow.

Students across the St. Louis region like Jaeden need to keep learning critical skills over the summer months to prepare for continued achievement in the next school year.

But for the nearly 1 in 5 kids across the St. Louis area living in poverty, they may not have access to educational resources, potentially putting them at a serious disadvantage. And this year, school closures and other stressors brought on by COVID-19 have caused additional challenges.

Jaeden is one of more than 12,000 kids across our region that attend a summer program supported by United Way. By supporting summer camps, educational programs and other resources, United Way is working to ensure all kids have access to the opportunities to help them hit the ground running this school year.

Learning academics and beyond

By the time school’s out, many kids are ready to drop the books and have more free time, but that doesn’t mean that learning has to stop. Educational summer programs like Unleashing Potential’s summer camp get kids ready to tackle the next school year.

Through their unique curriculum, Unleashing Potential’s summer camp teaches academic content, as well as critical social and emotional skills.

“We’re teaching self-regulation and getting kids to the point where they can learn,” said Gloria Hampton, director of school age services. “STEM is a big part of what we do, but social and emotional learning is an even bigger part.”

Without the ability to calm themselves, listen and interact in healthy ways, students like Jaeden would not have the foundation to learn and grow in school. At Unleashing Potential, Jaeden visited his classroom’s Safe Space nearly every day to practice naming his emotions, self-regulation and problem-solving. By the end of the summer, he had the skills he needed to learn and thrive in his next grade and beyond.

Filling learning gaps

The switch to digital learning and other challenges from COVID-19 may mean many local children need help catching up. Local nonprofits are stepping up to help fill the gaps, like YWCA of Alton, where one-on-one and small group settings give kids the tailored support they need to succeed.

“These programs allow us to take an equity-based approach, meaning we are able to know where some students need extra help and practice and where some do not,” said Mallory Jones, assistant director of child enrichment. “It is not about giving every child the same opportunity but giving them the help they need that is unique to them.”

In addition, YWCA of Alton’s Child Enrichment Summer Camp and Community Tutoring program participants come together for an ongoing educational curriculum and fun activities to keep them learning during the summer months.

Inspiring teens

Research has shown that teens have unique needs to help them grow into thriving adults – a structured environment, sense of belonging and supportive relationships, to name a few.  

“We know that keeping teens engaged in experiences translates to positive outcomes around graduating from high school, abstaining from drugs and alcohol and preparing for a great future,” said Jim Clark, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “The time young people spend after-school and during the summer is critical for ensuring all kids and teens have the same opportunities and experiences.”

With support from United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis opened a state-of-the-art Teen Center of Excellence in 2019 to give teens a space to learn and grow. The 26,856 square-foot houses a nutrition education center, outdoor garden, gymnasium, intellectual commons, theater, green and drama room, fitness zone, gaming room, music and art studio, innovation center and office space.

The Center offers afterschool and summer programming focusing on health and wellness, academics, workforce development, STEM, leadership and civic engagement. Club members learn to think critically, use their voice in healthy ways and discover who they are and how their purpose intersects with their world – the building blocks to a strong future.

Bridging the digital divide

As more and more educational and enrichment opportunities move online, especially in the wake of COVID-19, digital devices and the internet are becoming increasingly critical. But across the St. Louis region, more than 1 in 10 households don’t have a computer, and more than 2 in 10 don’t have internet access, according to US Census data.

This year, United Way has awarded more than $182,000 to 39 nonprofits across the St. Louis region in Missouri and Illinois to help them bridge this digital divide for the people they serve.

Because of this support, kids in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois’ mentoring program received Chromebooks, keeping them connected to their mentors to receive the extra support they need to succeed in school and life.

“For many of our children, the Chromebooks were the only thing connecting our Littles to their Bigs during a time when connection was needed the most,” said Heather Freed, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois. “Most of our children do not have hardware or reliable hardware. This gift was a game changer for them and will continue to be into the future.”

The knowledge and skills kids learn today will set them up for long-term success, and supporting all kids now helps make our schools, workforceand community stronger. By providing stable funding and support to help nonprofits meet our region’s evolving needs, United Way is helping St. Louis area kids meet their potential, strengthening the entire region for all of us.

*Name changed for privacy.

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James Taylor
James Taylor