‘It really is about who wants to be here.’ YMCA school program builds ‘power scholars.’

Elijah Jackson, a rising first-grade student, holds up a card while practicing number skills during the YMCA of Central Kentucky’s Power Scholars Academy at Coventry Oak Elementary School Wednesday, June 19, 2019.
Elijah Jackson, a rising first-grade student, holds up a card while practicing number skills during the YMCA of Central Kentucky’s Power Scholars Academy at Coventry Oak Elementary School Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

School is still in session for hundreds of Fayette County children.

But you won’t hear most of them complaining. In fact, applications to this “summer school” are only open to around 40 percent of elementary and intermediate students at Title I schools.

About 550 children in the Lexington area this summer have taken that opportunity. Those children are attending the Power Scholars Academy — or PSA — a joint effort between Fayette County Public Schools and the YMCA of Central Kentucky.

PSA is a free 5-week summer program that places students in the classroom to “foster critical 21st century skills” like teamwork, leadership and self-confidence. In the process, the program aims to improve skill retention, or the understanding of concepts taught and tested during the school year.

The results seem positive: Children participating in the program have demonstrated improved test scores over time, and 88 percent of power scholar parents reported noticing a higher level of self-confidence in their child at the end of the five weeks, according to the 2018 PSA impact report.

“The program is really built for students who are performing below the 40th percentile. That means that... (PSA students) may not be retaining the information they learned in the grade level they just completed,” said Jessica Berry, vice president of Youth Development at the YMCA of Central Kentucky.

“Our focus,” Berry said, “is to teach the content in a different way.”

PSA students learn through enrichment activities and a “growth mindset.”

Enrichment “is designed to reinforce what (children) are taught throughout the morning,” according to Berry, whether it be through STEM activities or yoga and swimming — which PSA also offers.

The growth mindset reminds children to not think “I can’t do this,” but instead “I may not know it now, but I will learn it.”

Berry said that children with a growth mindset will be able to tell themselves “I am able to do this; I am able to succeed” where they previously may have felt discouraged.

One of the YMCA’s goals in the partnership is to address gaps in student achievement. David Martorano, president and CEO of the YMCA of Central Kentucky, said this gap is often one of opportunity — whereas some children spend the summer traveling with their family, visiting museums and learning implicitly, others sit at home with few chances for academic stimulation.

“The Y is about youth development. For years we’ve been talking about the achievement gap or the opportunity gap in our young people,” Martorano said. “If our students are actively learning in the summertime, instead of the regression of summer learning loss, they can advance. They can find success.”

Sometimes “success” comes wrapped in an exciting package. At least, that’s a lesson PSA is teaching its students, or “scholars,” as Berry refers to them.

According to Berry, PSA scholars spend every Friday of the 5-week program on a field trip. This summer’s field trips include visits to Eckert’s Orchard and the Asbury rope course led by the program’s instructional coaches.

Instructional coaches with PSA are FCPS teachers who have undergone a thorough interview process. Although they are paid for their time, Berry said these teachers are, in many ways, volunteers who are able to “think outside of the box.”

“It really is about who wants to be here. Everybody here has opted in,” Berry said.

In 2018, FCPS contributed $367,000 to the power scholars program, while the YMCA of Central Kentucky contributed $190,000, according to Mendy Mills, associate director of Title I schools. The funds go toward staff salaries, transportation, curriculum, snacks and supplies.

Those supplies are not always conventional or costly. At Coventry Oak Elementary, one instructional coach taught ESL students the difference between the words “empty” and “full” by digging out a discarded cup from the trash and showing the emptied insides. Meanwhile, students raised their hands in hopes to be chosen to visualize the difference between the two words with markers on the board.

Coventry Oak is a hub school for PSA, serving students from Arlington, Booker T. Washington, Cardinal Valley, James Lane Allen and William Wells Brown. Fayette County’s other PSA hub schools are Yates Elementary and Bryan Station Middle. Mills said that all scholars are offered bus transportation to their hub school.

Instructional coaches and site managers place emphasis on “parent engagement,” which contributes to the scholars’ summer retention.

“Our scholars are already committing to the five weeks, giving up that portion of their summer. So we also send (information) home to parents that says, ‘here’s your commitment to the program,’” Berry said. “We ask them to read at home with their children for 20 minutes a night, or to at least have conversations about what took place during the day.”

In other words, the 5-week program is an involved process.

“I think (community involvement) is the greatest promise of power scholars. This goes beyond the Y or Fayette County. It’s organizations coming together to support our students in a way that our students need,” Berry said.

“We’re talking about our future workforce, our future leaders,” Martorano said. “We all collectively have to buy in, commit to be part of the solution. It takes the entire community to support our young people.”