All In A Day's Work At The Gardner

BC project is making a difference in lives of young Boston students

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The resounding beat of West African djembe hand-drums echoed through the hallways of Allstonís Gardner Elementary School one recent afternoon, as a dozen exuberant youngsters practiced African tribal rhythms under a frieze of classical Athenian warriors in the school auditorium.

Seven-year-old Jeanykay Simon, of Filipino and Haitian descent and swaying to an African beat, had brought her mother, uncle and aunt to the rousing after-school dance practice at the Gardner.

"Itís a little hard. You have to do new moves," Jeanykay said. But the effort is worth it, the Brighton second-grader said, describing how she and her classmates had performed for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino at an event at Boston College the previous week. "It was very cool," she said. "I got to shake the mayorís hand."

Just another day at the Gardner, where a melting-pot culture is reflected in a smorgasbord of activities outside regular school hours. African dance is among a spectrum of programs offered Gardner School pupils and their families the past three years under an innovative partnership between BC, Gardner, Allston-Brighton YMCA, Allston-Brighton Healthy Boston Coalition and other community agencies.

Student teacher Meghan Kalinich, LSOE '01, center, observes as second-graders Michell Brillon, left, and Erick Salas work on an after-school project at the Gardner Elementary School in Allston. (Photo by Justin Knight)

Forty BC students currently volunteer at the school as tutors while another four serve as teachersí aides at the Gardner, where the extended services program stretches school operating hours to afternoons, weekends and summer months, and offers family support through health and legal services and adult GED and ESL classes.

More than a quarter of the schoolís 431 pupils in grades K-5 are currently enrolled in the extended services program with its enrichment offerings before and after regular school hours. A recent five-day schedule for second-graders in the after-school program included Tae Bo, arts and crafts, swimming lessons at the Y, dance, aerobics, karate, drumming, knitting, cooking and chess.

In the latest MCAS results, the Gardner School ranked eighth-best in the state in the improvement made by its fourth-graders in English scores. The statistic is noteworthy given the large percentage of first-generation immigrants in the neighborhoods served by the Gardner. An estimated 32 languages are spoken in the homes of Gardner pupils.

Prof. Mary Walsh (LSOE), who has played a lead role in BCís involvement with Gardner and other Allston-Brighton schools, says it is difficult to assess which factors helped raise the fourth-grade MCAS scores at the Gardner. But she said the extended services program promotes the development of academic skills and social competence.

"Kids donít just learn in classrooms," Walsh said. "All activities contribute to teaching and learning. Cooking classes teach measurement, while dance workshops cultivate not only music appreciation, but also the benefits of working as a team towards a common goal."

"Education is more than just a pencil to a piece of paper," agreed Gardner Extended Services School Coordinator Erica Herman, M.Ed í99. "These kids come from urban neighborhoods, and we need to provide them with as many opportunities as possible, to give them the enrichment they need so much."

Meghan Kalinich,í01, is in her third year as a tutor and teacherís aide at the Gardner, where she leads an after-school class in cardio-kick-boxing two days a week. "This is the wave of the future," she said. "I believe an all-encompassing program is needed for kids to successfully develop as human beings. When kids come to school healthy, they can learn."

Kalinich said the experience has been valuable for her, as well. "When I come back from vacation, kids will come running up to me saying, ëMiss K, Miss K, where have you been?í Itís an indication of how much these kids need us in their lives, not just as tutors or teachers, but as friends."

One recent afternoon at 5:00, at a time traditional elementary schools have closed for the day, the Gardner was bustling with activity.

Volunteer Susan Considine of Brighton, whose six-year-old daughter, Eva, attends first grade at Gardner, was teaching several children how to knit.

"The kids are really entertaining and a little exhausting," said Considine, who praised the range of after-school activities, from karate to music lessons. "As a parent, I can say itís fantastic," she said.

Ten second-graders, several of them in maroon school-uniform shirts, were busy making picture books as part of an after-school project before moving on to club activities. One girl drew a picture of a fireman with a hose under the inscription, "I trust the firefighter to come if there is a fire."

Seven-year-old Natachia Kotomori was looking forward to her lesson in African dance. "I just like to take off my shoes and exercise a lot," she said. "Itís a little tough, but someone has to do it."

A number of the children had danced for the mayor the week before at Boston College, and had been duly impressed with the University. "It was humongous," said seven-year-old Taylor Daly. Agreed Jeffrey Yu, 7: "It was really big. And it was clean."

The children said they would like to attend Boston College someday. "I would study ice-skating," said Natachia. "I would study to be a veterinarian," said Taylor.

But Carmen Bellareyna said she wanted to study to be a teacher. Asked what sheíd like most about the vocation, Carmen replied: "Helping."

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