Back to their future: SUN helps students look forward to starting school

August 21, 2014

Incoming students line up at Ron Russell Middle School to practice opening their lockers before their first day back to school.

Sixth graders line up at their lockers at Ron Russell Middle School. Their fingers clumsily twist and turn the dial of the combination locks before them. They whisper to each other newly-learned tactics of opening their locks, sometimes giggling and forming new friendships.

It’s still summer, and the school year has yet to officially begin. A Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) aide monitors the children, teaching them about planners, lockers and navigating their new middle school. Their neighborhood SUN school offers a free summer camp for them to engage in activities, access a free meal and prepare for the upcoming school year.

“It’s really nice because it’s a smaller camp, it’s a half-day camp for four weeks... the goal is to work in some educational activities where you can, but it’s really more about staying active,” says SUN site manager of Floyd Light Middle School, Amanda Wolff.

With relay games in the gym, cooking class in the consumer studies classroom, and art projects, the balance of engaging activities and learning new skills has been struck.

However, as some children enter their first year at a new school, such as the fifth graders entering sixth grade, and the eighth graders entering their first year in high school, a lot more rides on these summer programs.

Whether it’s getting acquainted with the new building, learning how to use a planner for the first time, or just making new friends to have there on the first day, SUN summer programs are there to help.

A groundbreaking partnership for students

The SUN Community School Program was established in 1999, serving only eight schools in Multnomah County. The goals, according to the SUN mission, were to increase enthusiasm in young people about education and support school success, and to improve families’ access to resources through a “school-based delivery model”. From offering karate classes to academic enrichment courses, SUN community schools strive to appeal to children while creating an enriching environment.

What was truly groundbreaking was pooling resources from Multnomah County, the City of Portland and local nonprofits. These partnerships systematically coordinated their efforts to help build the program from the eight schools in 1999 to the 80 SUN sites that will be active this year.

Children at a SUN community school learn bike safety through a partner program, Rides To School.

But as the neighborhoods change, SUN has to keep up. With gentrification taking place across the county, SUN schools have to be part of the conversation. Many of these programs work with families priced out of their former homes and neighborhoods. As a result, the existing neighborhoods they are pushed into are struggling to keep up.

“You’re talking about schools whose staffs are mostly white, where the neighborhoods used to be mostly white,” Wolff explains. “And all of a sudden, they’ve got kids where English is not their first language and there is a dozen or more languages spoken.”

This raises questions for not just the SUN program, but the schools and the greater community as well: How do we serve everyone? Should we totally change the way we do everything? Should we keep doing what we’ve been doing and try to shape people to fit that mold?

Peggy Samolinski, the director of the SUN System, says that it’s up to the schools and the individual site managers to develop a plan for these children.

“Sadly, kids that are new immigrants are going to struggle more in school,” she says.

SUN structure taps local expertise to solve local problems

SUN site managers and the school’s administrative team usually meet to collaborate and develop improvement plans. Administrators can raise an issue, and the site manager can offer to bring in services for the community.

“For example, offering an ESL [English as a Second Language] class,” Samolinski explains. These services can be offered to the parents as well through the SUN System. “I’m trusting that school is noticing those changing demographics and really gets that.”

Wolff notes that many children from homes struggling with poverty, also deal with family discord and violence. Coming to a school where teachers can speak your language and counselors can connect you and your family to resources can help.

A group of children participating in a SUN community schools summer camp listen to the list of activities offered for the day: relay races, a cooking class, and piñata-making.

Every SUN school has a nonprofit, social services-led agency. For Floyd Light and Ron Russell Middle Schools, the nonprofit sponsor is El Progama Hispano, a branch of Catholic Charities that specializes in serving the Latino community. The school houses programs and workshops about immigration and housing, and also offers courses and workshops in Spanish. Opportunities like these allow families and children to fully experience what the school and county can offer them. Bridging that gap can inspire children to attend school.

“Attendance is a serious issue, so if we can motivate kids to want to be at school for something, that’s huge.” says Wolff.

On the surface level, simply the extra homework help after school, the free meal, and other fun activities offered is a great way to draw children in.

“There’s a lot of places for them to be after school,” says Wolff. “After school hours, we see the highest rates of juvenile crime because kids don’t have anywhere to go. If kids are at school for two more hours until five, and we’re feeding them and giving them a safe ride home...That alone is a really good thing.”

A SUN community schools camper watches eagerly as Everado Martinez, a Summerworks intern for SUN Community Schools, fills her piñata with candy.

Summer programs help introduce students and teachers

With teachers preparing for the new school year, they will sometimes cross paths with the SUN summer camp and introduce themselves. Faces become familiar for the new students, and for returning students, it reinforces their excitement to see their favorite teachers again.

“I really like meeting our incoming sixth graders in the summer,” Wolff says. “I like that they have this positive, fun connection to SUN and will seek that out in the school year, and will seek me out if they need another support in the school.”

In order for a school to qualify for the SUN Program, it must meet the balance of low-income students as well as the concentration of children of color. On July 1, 2014 the SUN Program added ten more schools, raising the total number of SUN sites to 80.

“We have a vision that every school [will] become a community school,” says Samolinski. “We’re really proud to say that we’re over halfway there.”

For SUN site manager of Ron Russell Middle School, Madieline Hernandez, the summer camp is helpful to the adults working at the school as well. This upcoming school year will be her second year working for SUN and she wants the program to thrive at her site.

“I’m really trying to learn what fits best here and what these kids need,” she says. “I can get a better idea of that by working with these kids this summer.”

Sometimes what that means is finding opportunities to tap into what students are interested in. Last year, Floyd Light lost its arts program due to budget cuts. As a result, Wolff added in more art classes to her after-school program, per request of the students. 

She remembers middle school being a challenging time. As children navigate through a new space with new obstacles to overcome, Wolff wants to support the children in her program. She and Hernandez both agree that seeing the young people they work with succeed, even if it’s just passing a math test, is the most rewarding part of the job.

“Watching kids find their place, watching them develop good, healthy, supportive friendships…” says Wolff. “That’s great to know that, at least for a couple students, you’re making a really big difference.”

For more information or to find a SUN Community School near you.