It’s the last week in June, and about a dozen middle schoolers are working in teams of two on vocabulary words, drawing pictures, and using them in sentences. One boy, contemplating the word barricade, asks if he can draw a picture of Donald Trump’s wall. Another pair of kids garners a few chuckles for their use of the word apprehensive—“Frank was apprehensive about McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets because he is a vegetarian.”
In the classroom next door, students have filled a bulletin board with goals for math instruction—asking to learn decimals, fractions, and geometry, among other complex concepts.
Most of these kids, ranging in age from 10 to 13, have barely been on vacation from their public schools for a week, but they are soaking up lessons during GAIN@GUS. The program is run by Glen Urquhart School, which offers private kindergarten through eighth grade education in Beverly, and aims to give summer support to academically driven public school students in the summer. At least half the kids are bilingual, most come from Lynn and Beverly, some are from unstable home environments, and all of them are performing at or above grade level at their current schools. They’ve signed on for five weeks of full-day education, and they couldn’t be happier.
“We’re special people because we get to come here,” says Dominic Filtranti, an engaging 12-year-old from Beverly. “The teachers treat us like equals.” When asked about his favorite subject, he can’t choose. “Subjects don’t matter—it’s really the teachers who make everything fun.”
That “fun” approach mirrors the experience that GUS private school students have—teachers for GAIN@GUS are on faculty at the school year-round, and use a much more multisensory learning experience than is typical of public school. Pupils get access to all the resources private school students have—from computer labs to the bearded dragon lizard in a science classroom—but it’s all free. Everything from the bus that picks kids up at stops throughout Lynn and Beverly every morning to breakfast, lunch, and snacks, is covered by GUS’s generous supporters.
“It feels lighter than their public school experience,” says Melanie D’Orio, director of the GAIN@GUS program, the only free academic summer program on the North Shore for grades five through seven. “The things we take for granted here, using a multisensory approach to learning and a lot of movement, are often unfamiliar to them.”
The positive environment is contagious from the moment the kids pour off the bus. “I love waking up and being with all these fun, nice people,” says Rashanda Vassell, a shy 12-year-old from Beverly with a lovely smile who is attending the program for her second year. Last year, learning about inverse operations in math was a highlight for Vassell—and one that put her ahead of other kids at her public school last fall. “I’m looking forward to learning more so I can be ready for seventh grade,” she says.
Filtranti, also a returning GAIN student, agrees. “It gives me a nice advantage over everyone in class,” he says, adding that his public school teacher actually stopped calling on him. “I guess I’m not supposed to know all the answers,” he says with a sly grin.
It’s not just academics, though. Students speak of epic soccer battles and swim lessons—something that Vassell says was a favorite activity, and something she hadn’t really done before GAIN@GUS. She shakes her head when asked if she was a swimmer before.
Swim lessons have been a part of the curriculum since the beginning, says Leslie Marchesseault, GUS director of admissions and financial aid and founder of the GAIN@GUS program, in recognition of the fact that kids in lower socioeconomic groups often don’t know how to swim.
“We try to fill in the gaps,” Marchesseault says, explaining that instruction also includes mindfulness exercises, yoga, and improvisation covering things like how to greet someone in a way that is confident. “That could be the difference between one of these kids getting noticed instead of overlooked,” she says.
Another confidence builder is forming lasting friendships with like-minded kids. “I make friends more easily here, because everyone is so kind,” says Lily Romero, a perky 12-year-old from Lynn. “It makes it easier to approach new kids and make friends at my regular school.”
Students are referred to GAIN@GUS by a variety of community agencies like Beverly Bootstraps, as well as by city parent-teacher organizations and public schools. Thirteen-year-old Michael Yentin would be the first to say that GAIN@GUS has sharpened his skills—both academically and personally. The Beverly resident says that being at the program had given him the tools to manage his energetic personality. “This has helped me to turn down the temperature and calm down,” he says, adding that it’s even helped him out at home. “Since I’ve been to camp, me and my mom and dad are besties,” he says with a smile, explaining that he argues with them far less than before.
In addition to the schools, members of the community, like GAIN@GUS donors Michael and Clare Byrne can also be relied on to refer kids to the program. They helped the son of a longtime employee of their business, The Patio Company in Essex, enroll with great results.
“We knew the child would benefit from the enriching program Gain@GUS offers,” Michael Byrne says. “GAIN kept his skills sharp and gave him a different perspective, allowing him to visualize a wider variety of opportunities for his future. Quite simply, GAIN has been transformative to this boy’s life.”
That sentiment is music to GAIN director D’Orio’s ears. “We want to send them off able to visualize what is next,” she says. “Someone needs to be a catalyst for these kids, and this program levels the playing field.”
Involvement from people like the Byrnes is a critical piece of the success of the program. Field trips include visits to the Peabody Essex Museum, underwritten by the museum itself, a ride on a lobster boat and tours of area colleges—including the dorm rooms, which the kids particularly enjoy. All of these opportunities serve to help the kids to see a wider world of options. On a Career Day field trip to Windover Construction, a company that has also been generous financially to GAIN@GUS, executives helped the kids match their skills and interests to actual jobs within the company.
“The kids were surprised to learn that being bilingual was a skill that would be useful in the workplace,” D’Orio says. “Although they are not educators at Windover, they were able to make a real connection with the kids.”
That kind of partnership is one that GUS staff wants to develop. “Though we are housed at a private school, [GAIN@GUS] is really a community outreach program,” says Marchesseault. “A lot of companies want to make a commitment to the local community.”
When it comes to community outreach, GAIN has come a long way in a short time—from 10 students and a $6,000 grant from the United Way, matched by GUS supporters, in 2009 to a fully donor-funded organization serving 31 kids. Among future goals are formally measuring the success of the program, possibly expanding support into the school year and building the network for the students as they age out of GAIN@GUS after seventh grade.
“All of our kids need to know who is on their team,” D’Orio says. “They need an expanded network and we provide that.”
Glen Urquhart? School?