Getting a Jump-Start At Summer School

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fairfax County schools were a couple of weeks from opening, but McNair Elementary School students were learning about rocks by scooping chocolate chips, graham cracker crumbs and marshmallows into plastic baggies.

In the middle of the third week of August, 8-year-old Josue Arellano prepared to squish his model with a rolling pin, to turn the "sedimentary rock" into a "metamorphic rock."

But, first, he had a pressing question:

"When are we going to eat this?"

Most of Fairfax County's 164,000 students will return to class Tuesday, but Josue and about 45 other McNair students, as part of a pilot program known as a "jump-start," used two of the last weeks of their summer to preview what they'll study this school year.

"The idea is to just douse the kids with experiences and background knowledge before they get to grade level, so they have something to grab onto," said Karen Egan, who coordinated the program. "It's really just about learning and experiencing. The activities we're trying to do are engaging, really hands-on."

McNair's jump-start program is one example of a new approach to summertime learning that turns traditional summer school on its head. Instead of focusing on remedial work and catching up on last year's lessons, some educators are giving students extra help before they have a chance to fall behind.

Washington Mill Elementary School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County held a similar session for three weeks this summer, and about 70 students attended. And more than 300 children in the Alexandria school system recently attended Kindergarten Prep, a two-week program to help children who did not attend preschool prepare for the routines of going to school.

McNair Principal Stephen Hockett and other educators say the extra time is particularly helpful to students who struggle with academics or are learning English as a second language. The sessions will help them start the school year with more knowledge and confidence, they say.

"When it comes up in class, they are going to be resident experts and be able to participate in the activities with a great foundation," Hockett said.

McNair's jump-start program isn't the only addition to county schools this year. Eagle View Elementary School in Fairfax opens this year, bringing the number of county elementary schools to 137. High schools are adding classes in pharmacy tech, construction management and applied statistics. And more than a dozen schools have new principals.

McNair is one of three county elementary schools with a large percentage of students who are from low-income families and have not met the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, county school officials said.

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