Alta Vista’s ‘Eaglets’ benefiting from anonymous couple’s generosity

Teacher Laura Busenburg chats with her Eaglet Academy students during lunchtime at Alta Vista Elementary School. Photo by Rachel Hackney

The dozens of youngsters gathered around tables in the Alta Vista Elementary School cafeteria on Aug. 7 chatted quietly among themselves as they ate their lunches, proving themselves a model of decorum.

A visitor easily might have pegged them as Alta Vista “veterans,” ready to move on to middle school.

The reality was quite the opposite: They were the first class of the Eaglet Academy, a program focused on high-quality, developmentally appropriate learning experiences. These youngsters will be entering kindergarten at Alta Vista when the 2012-13 school year opens on Aug. 20.

Surveying the cafeteria, Principal Barbara Shirley pointed out that the teachers had encouraged these 5-year-olds to carry on “social conversations,” with no yelling across the tables — “a little Emily Post training,” Shirley added, referring to the well-known doyenne of manners.

The Eaglet Academy was made possible at this Sarasota school thanks to the generosity of a couple who have chosen to remain anonymous, Shirley explained to The Sarasota News Leader.

The children came to the school four days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., July 9 through Aug. 9. Free bus transportation and free breakfasts and lunches were provided along with lessons.

(The “Eaglet” part of the program name comes from Alta Vista’s mascot, the eagle.)

Shirley pointed out that Alta Vista is a Title 1 school serving a diverse student population. In the five years she has been principal, Shirley added, the percentage of the students receiving free or reduced-price lunches has risen from 78 to 94.

Many of Alta Vista’s kindergarteners in recent years have arrived on the first day of class without sufficient language and math skills, she said, leaving them at a disadvantage. It typically has taken the first six or eight weeks of school to help them reach the level of knowledge and experience they ideally should have had on the first day.

Although Alta Vista has maintained an A grade in the state of Florida for the past nine years, Shirley said, the teachers “really work hard” to keep that ranking, given the challenges so many of the students have outside the classroom.

Kathy Chamberlain, director of the Sarasota Family YMCA’s Mentor Program, collaborated with Shirley on the academy. All children who had registered to start kindergarten in the next school year were invited to participate, she told the News Leader.

Along with the classroom work at Alta Vista, the Y offered free enrichment and recreational activities at the school until 6 p.m. for children with working parents, Shirley said.

“The YMCA has been incredibly generous also,” she added.

“My interest is in education in our community,” Chamberlain said, “and this was just an unbelievable opportunity to give these children a chance to start ahead of the curve, so to speak.”

Regarding the after-hours sessions, Chamberlain said the Y staff consulted with the teachers each day on what had been taught in the classroom. The instruction “was reinforced in the afternoons,” she said, “so the children really got an opportunity to thoroughly learn what was presented to them.”

Given what they have mastered in a short space of time, Chamberlain added, “These kids are going to be so far ahead” of their peers.

At the beginning of the program, Shirley pointed out, “Many of them didn’t even know how to hold a pencil.”

The children took tests in the opening days of the Eaglet Academy, Shirley continued, so staff could determine how much progress they had made, by testing them again at the end of the session.

“They have made really huge gains,” Shirley said.

The goal is to track the youngsters all through their years at Alta Vista, she added, to assess how much of an impact the Eaglet Academy had on them.

Favorite lessons

During lunchtime on Aug. 7, three of the youngsters spoke with this reporter.

Five-year-old Aubrey Patrick didn’t hesitate when asked what her favorite part of her Eaglet Academy experience had been:

“Rhyming,” she said.

Asked for an example, she once again responded immediately: “Cat, bat and hat.”

Jacob Kalua, also 5, was a bit more shy when asked about his favorite experience. His face brightened, though, when teacher Kim Morris reminded him about the nature walk he had taken with his classmates about a month earlier; the children had spent time identifying shapes, she said. He remembered “a triangle” and “a square.”

Gabby Rodriguez, 5, said reading had been her favorite activity this summer. She especially liked a book about objects whose names begin with the letter ‘R.”

“I read here and at home,” she said.

Establishing the academy

Five-year-old Juanita Lopez shows off a craft she made in class. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Schools

Asked how the anonymous couple came to support the academy, Shirley said people who are familiar with Alta Vista’s needs, and who also know the couple, made the appropriate introductions.

“They believed enough in us that they wanted to support what we want to do,” she said.

During the summer program, the benefactors have made it possible for the school to employ five teachers, a teacher’s aide, an English-as-a-Second-Language coordinator and a receptionist at the front desk, as well as the bus transportation and the curriculum material, Shirley explained.

They would like to gain enough support from members of the community, Shirley said, to expand the program into other schools.

Shirley added that she has been communicating weekly with the couple and sending them photos of the students.

The couple are seeking other contributors, Shirley said, with the hope of extending the school year for these youngsters after kindergarten ends next spring.

It would be typical for these children not to read or pursue other instructional activities during the summer, Shirley added, which means they would have to play catch-up when they returned to Alta Vista for first grade.

“They just don’t have the environment they need” at home, she added.

Parent focus, too

Along with its afternoon program for the children, the YMCA held once-a-week classes open to all the parents called “Parent University.” The goal was to train the adults in child development and behavior management, to help provide a better situation for the children at home, Shirley pointed out.

The Y’s Family Management Program handled that initiative, Chamberlain said.

One counselor who was fluent in Spanish worked with the family members who spoke no English, she added.

The parents had the opportunity to talk about all sorts of topics related to their children, Chamberlain said, “and it brought [them] together as a group.”

The Y staff hopes the effort will result in their becoming more supportive of their children at school, Chamberlain said, including becoming regular volunteers.

Speaking of volunteers …

One other supporter of the Eaglet Academy, who has won praise from Shirley and her staff, is Kevin Abt, 17, who will be a member of the Sarasota High School Class of 2013.

An alumnus of Alta Vista Elementary, he has been working with the Eaglets this summer.

“I like this school so much,” he said. “I feel like it’s a good place to volunteer.”

Teacher Kim Morris explained, “The mom in you just wants to help tie [the children’s] shoes,” for example, or open milk cartons, “and you can’t.”

The children have to learn to do those things on their own, Morris pointed out.

However, Kevin can help them, she said. “He kind of fills in that gap, [plus] he’s a great role model for them.”

Asked if he had aspirations of becoming a teacher, Abt said he was leaning more toward pediatric medicine.

“The 5-year-olds just look up to him,” Shirley added.

“It used to take a village” to raise children, she said, referring to the African proverb popularized in the 1990s. “It really takes a city.”

Shirley added, “I truly believe that this program is going to set these children up for long-term success.”