Editor’s Note: This blog was originally posted on the Community Foundation for Sarasota County’s website.
My name is Matt Twargoski, and I am a rising junior at the University of Notre Dame participating in the Notre Dame Summer Student Learning Program (SSLP) here in Sarasota. In this program, I spent six weeks at Alta Vista Elementary School’s Eagle Academy participating in the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
Being a Sarasota native, I was eager to explore education in our community. Alta Vista is a Title I school with many of the students receiving free or reduced lunch. In Title I schools, preventing the “summer slide” is critical in ensuring that students are learning at grade level, especially up to third grade. Being on target in reading at third grade is an important milestone and indication for future academic success. Studies show that students who are on grade level are more motivated to continue their education, while those who are behind may lose this desire. This, among other reasons, is why the Eagle Academy was launched in 2012.
The Eagle Academy has seen incredible results in student performance and attendance. This is due to the two-generation (2Gen) approach involving both parents and students in the educational process. At the Eagle Academy, this approach is represented by a weekly Parent University. Families who enroll students into the Eagle Academy are encouraged to have a parent attend these sessions every Thursday, where they learn important skills while encouraging a desire to continue their education.
While working with these students, I cannot help but reflect on when I was in elementary school. Seeing the kindergarteners practice their letters on an alphabet carpet and second graders practice their addition through minute drills reminds me of these important stages in my academic career.
I also have interacted with students who come from unimaginable situations. One encounter that particularly stands out is that of two students from a migrant family. They never stayed in a school for more than two weeks. When they first arrived at Alta Vista, they could not communicate in English or Spanish. Furthermore, they never learned how to use a calendar — they did not know what days or weeks were, or how to interpret them. When I first heard about this, I was very surprised: the days of the week are some of the first things taught to elementary students, and they are used daily. These students had gone years without knowing what they were.
Yet despite these challenges, they have been able to grow at Alta Vista. I have seen them communicate with other students and perform well on their schoolwork. It is progress like this that inspires my belief that summer programs like the Eagle Academy are crucial in giving all students an equal opportunity to realize their full potential.
As I begin the second half of my SSLP experience, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of our community’s most vulnerable and use it to bring everyone closer together in this place we call home.