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Published: Friday December 27, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday December 27, 2013 MYT 9:20:41 AM

Meaningful work

Buchtel High junior Mikaela Coteat, 16, took part in a lesson of civic engagement by volunteering at area food banks, senior living facilities and the Salvation Army.

Buchtel High junior Mikaela Coteat, 16, took part in a lesson of civic engagement by volunteering at area food banks, senior living facilities and the Salvation Army.

Students get lessons in character building on day off from school.

WITH classes cancelled on a recent Wednesday as teachers attended professional development workshops, students welcomed a day off from school.

About 45 showed up anyway.

These at-risk freshmen were transported from their high school to places 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 in Ohio, the United States.

Devante joined 16 other students at the food pantry. Other students volunteered at a senior center, and still others at Salvation Army.

The students are in Akron’s Closing the Achievement Gap programme, which provides academic enrichment experiences and community support for struggling students and their families.

The 225 freshmen in the programme are identified in eighth grade as at risk because of low test scores or behavioural issues. They’re selected from four high schools with lower-than-average graduation rates in the city. Programme 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 programme coordinator.

This fall, Sibley expanded the programme, now in its fourth year, to include more service learning projects, among them volunteer work at the food bank.

“They lay their hands 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 non-profit 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 programme specialist and 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 programme enrollment to about 25% 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 programme at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Sibley touts the programme’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 confirmed Sibley’s praise. Programme graduates are less likely to be absent from school compared with similarly performing students not in the programme.

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 programme participants. – Akron Beacon Journal/ McClatchy Tribune Information Services.

Tags / Keywords: Family & Community, Community, Family, Character building, Teens

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