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Seventh Graders POWER Up at AU

By Mike Unger

Photo: Babatunde Pyne works with students in SETH's POWER program.

Babatunde Pyne works with students in SETH's POWER program. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

Virginia Reed and Charrel Speaks claim not to like math, yet Monday morning, they sure seemed to be enjoying math class.

The 12-year-olds are students in the POWER program at AU’s School of Education, Teaching, and Health. A partnership with the United Planning Organization, the program is geared toward steering middle-school students from low-income neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., toward college. During two, six-week sessions this summer, seventh graders are taking courses with a curriculum focused on social justice.

Along the way their math, writing, reading, and science skills are sharpened while they dive deeper into the problems surrounding—and strengths of—their own neighborhoods.

“It’s not like summer school,” Virginia said. “We can talk about things. It’s more like being in a conversation.”

In Babatunde Pyne’s math class, Virginia and Charrel filled out surveys about resources in their part of the city. The next day, the class was to prepare graphs and statistics based on the results.

“It’s wonderful just being on a college campus,” said Pyne, a teacher in the District’s public schools system. “A lot of them have college aspirations but not any exposure to college. I’d like for them to leave here with the ability to speak up about issues that affect them.”

Professor Stacie Tate is leading the AU portion of the program. After working on a similar one at UCLA, she believes exposing high-risk students to a new method of learning is highly beneficial.

“These students may be struggling, but with that extra push they might have a much different outlook about themselves,” she said. “Standardized testing drives the curriculum in DCPS, and that’s fine for some things. But you also need to [teach] students through issues that are relevant to them. In science we’re talking about health issues, we’re having them go out into their communities and talk to people.”

The first session included 14 boys, while this session has 19 girls. Separating the genders is an aspect of the full UPO program, which will track the students through the end of their time in high school. UPO is a private nonprofit human service corporation that plans, coordinates, and implements human service programs in Washington.

The POWER program (Providing Opportunities With Educational Readiness) includes more than just academics. Students take field trips, including one to Luray Caverns in Virginia that was quite a hit. Working in groups, they participate in the making of a short film using iMovies. Students write, direct, act in, and edit the films, and on Aug. 21, SETH will hold an event on campus to screen them all.

In the classroom Monday, the students were engaged, excited, and enthusiastic about their learning. They also were sporting something else generally unseen in summer school: smiles.