Before Sharon McDougald came to Bel Pre Square, a public housing development for low- and moderate-income families, the residents often had trouble adjusting to life in the affluent, largely white neighborhood surrounding them.
McDougald, Montgomery County's tenant counselor at Bel Pre for the last three years, said the residents, most of whom are black, kept to themselves in the small 50-unit enclave and took little part in community and school activities.
Children "did not feel comfortable" leaving the 12-year-old development to go to summer programs at nearby Bel Pre Elementary School," said McDougald, who works for the Housing Opportunities Commission. "They were being stereotyped and discriminated against, not with the school, but in the predominantly white community."
McDougald came up with the idea of a summer school in Bel Pre Square to help bridge the gap between the development and the community.
She believed that parents "would feel more comfortable getting to know the principal and teachers right here in their own community."
Bel Pre Principal Aileen Craig was enthusiastic. She noted, "there was not any involvement in PTA or school volunteers (from among Bel Pre square parents) in proportion to the number of youngsters (from the development) we served."
The summer program that grew from McDougald's idea, named Summer in the Square, was launched last year. Taught by two Bel Pre teachers and two junior high student volunteers, the course is divided into a five-day morning session for math and language arts and an afternoon session two days a week for field trips and nature studies.
The youngsters, some of whom recently completed their second year in the program, have progressed academically as well as socially, Craig said.
"Once we started working with the kids in smaller groups, we saw other potential in the kids and found out special talents or problems," she said. "We found one youngster we were able to motivate tremendously. He progressed more in a small-group setting and the competition is less in a small-group setting."
Anjali Chawla, 9, who will enter fourth grade this fall, said she liked the summer school because "I get to learn things more and I get to grow my intelligence. And I get to walk only a little way. The school is close. The teachers are very nice; they help me to grow my knowledge. They give more harder things, so it's a challenge and I have to learn more."
Nakia Frazier, 6, who will enter second grade at Bel Pre Elementary, said she liked the program because "I got lots of friends. I like the teachers because they tell us stories. They never bite you or pinch you. And I like Mrs. McDougald because she pays for the trips we go on."
The summer program has been a big success in the eyes of Bel Pre Square parents, too.
Last week, they showed their appreciation by giving a party for the teachers and children on the last day of classes. While some of the mothers grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, others watched proudly as their children sang songs, played homemade instruments and received awards and farewell gifts from Craig.
One parent, Peggy Harris, who stood watching the children receive pencils from Craig, said she was happy with the program because it kept her 10-year-old daughter Pamela "from getting in a lot of trouble during the summer. And it kept her refreshed on her work from school and made her pick up on her times tables, which she didn't have that well. But in summer school she seems to have learned them faster."
Mary Dorsey, who grilled the hamburgers and hot dogs, said she wished the program had been available when her daughters were in elementary school. Her 7-year-old son Charles is enrolled this summer.
"I've seen improvements in my son in his reading and his spelling. He's more alert and he's more grown up than the girls were at his age. He knows about things around him," said Dorsey, a cafeteria worker with the Montgomery County public schools. "This summer school has helped to lift my spirits. I've gone on a couple of the trips with the kids."
Dorsey said that although her participation in school activities had been limited in the past, she now plans to get more involved. "I help out as much as possible in school fairs and such, but I don't give it my all. I get lost at PTA. Sometimes they are talking over my head. But I plan to get involved with PTA."
Volunteer work last summer led to a job for parent Dorothy Lee. "Mrs. Craig offered me a job as a lunchroom aide to monitor over the kids as they eat their lunch," she said.
Lee said the summer school has been "great" for her 11-year-old daughter Robin. "She has a problem learning, and I've seen an improvement in her as a result of being in the program. She has really taken an interest in this program. I hope that it can continue, although she'll be going into junior high.
"Another thing I like is that the kids got to go to some black museums. They went to Anacostia and they even got to go to the C & O Canal. The kids really seemed to enjoy it. The kids were constantly coming when Sharon was getting up trips because they didn't want to miss out. My husband even went on a trip," Lee said.
More Bel Pre Square parents now are taking part in school activities as a result of being involved in the summer school, Lee believes.
"A lot of blacks don't feel comfortable around the whites, but your children will draw you out to school functions," she said. "Because if your child has become close with a teacher, naturally they will want you to meet her. I know that's the way my daughter is."