By Shirely Skeel
TACOMA – It all sounds a little fishy—but for kids it is classroom heaven. A group of schoolchildren will be digging into the guts of Northwest salmon in a Tuesday, July 9 laboratory class that will teach them about the extraordinary life cycle of this tenacious fish.
Why are they in class in the middle of a glorious summer?
Because they choose to be.
Sixty schoolchildren, about to enter grades seven to 12 at local Tacoma Public Schools, have joined theSummer Academic Challenge at University of Puget Sound.
For 20 intensive days, from June 16 to July 25, the young students will be in the classroom, in the laboratory, and out in the field, attending free math and science classes that are supported by local businesses.
The “challenge,” as the college and parents see it, is to inspire these youngsters with a love of science and math, in the hope it will give them the knowledge and drive they need to pass these toughest of subjects at school—maybe even with the good marks that could get them into college.
The “challenge,” as the kids see it, is simply to stick to their promise to Puget Sound to show up every one of the 20 days. Beyond that, what they often discover is that the classes are so fascinating they want to come back year after year.
The Summer Academic Challenge, run in partnership with Tacoma Public Schools as part of Puget Sound’s Access Programs, is targeted at promising students from groups underrepresented in higher education, such as students of color or low-income families.
“I find myself inspired by the questions that these students ask and by their excitement as they dive into the hands-on activities,” said Abigail Taitano, program coordinator for Access Programs. “And it is not just these young people who benefit. Tacoma as a whole gains so much as our students explore further education and go on to work and participate in the community.”
Data collected by Puget Sound shows that Access Programs students in the 2011 and 2012 high school graduating classes far exceeded expectations for their peers as a whole. Ninety-three percent of them graduated from high school on time, compared to the 62 percent rate overall for Tacoma Public Schools in 2011. Currently 86 percent of the same Summer Academic Challenge students are enrolled in higher education—well above the near 50 percent figure for all American 18- to 24-year-olds who have completed high school.
Each year the students are broken into three groups according to their grade level. This year the groups will be studying Life Cycles of Salmon; Buildings and Structures (including a hard-hat tour of Puget Sound’s new Commencement Hall student residence); and Environmental Investigations, including get-your-hands-dirty fieldwork.
On July 25, at the end of the program, the students will give multimedia presentations to parents, peers, and community members about what they have learned.
The university has been conducting the Summer Academic Challenge program since 1989. Teachers for the program are drawn from the university and from Pierce County schools, while Puget Sound students serve as teaching assistants.