Last summer, Sylvia Grant's three children spent their mornings taking arts and crafts, math and reading at their Southeast community school. The children said they were bored. Instead of going to school, they wanted to go swimming.
Grant figured something basic was missing.
"Learning doesn't have to be torture," she said.
To change things, she and other parents in the neighborhood drew up a curriculum that won approval from the public school system; then they raised additional money for the summer program's budget. The children would still have math and reading in a supplemental summer education program, but the approach to teaching would be different.
The parents scheduled field trips and insisted that children be taught how to apply their lessons to everyday life. Next, the group found teachers who were receptive to its ideas.
Grant said, "For the first time, teachers listened to us and gave us the complete go-head to do what we wanted to do."
Now, each weekday from 9 a.m. to noon, the Anne Beers Community School, at Alabama Avenue and 36th Place SE, is a place where parents and teachers work together to educate and interest 45 neighborhood children.
"This is the first time I've seen a direct voice of the parents come to life," said Marian Bobo, one of the parents who helped Grant organize the program.
"This is just a community that said, 'We want to do something for our children,' " added Bobo, who is special education teacher for the District of Columbia Public Schools. "This is grass roots."
To prepare for this summer, the parents presented the school's assistant principal, Albert Williams, with a full curriculum of what they wanted their children to learn and how they wanted the subjects taught.
The idea of parent involvement in summer community school programs isn't a new one. Williams said all of the District's 14 community schools have councils, made up of neighborhood residents, that propose programs for their schools. However, Williams wasn't sure the ambitious proposal outlined by the Grant group could be implemented with the community school's slim budget: $4,000 to pay the salaries of two teachers.
Beers is located in the middle-class neighborhoods of Hillcrest Heights, Fort Davis and Naylor-Dupont where most parents are well educated and many children attend private schools. The parents were adamant about what they wanted.
If there wasn't enough money, they said they would raise the amount needed. They also vowed to cut corners by utilizing resources available in the city and by volunteering to serve as office staff and for other similar tasks.
Notices were sent to the community. Space was limited, so students were accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. During the first week, the students, ages 5 through 14, were tested to determine where they needed extra attention. None of the 45 children had poor school records. Still, parents demanded a teacher with a background in instructing reading--and they found one.
"Fortunately, I went to enroll my niece. . . . I have a master's in reading," explained Emily Washington, whom parents enticed into becoming the community school's reading instructor.
"The reading program is not geared toward remediation as much as it is toward providing experiences the children would not have normally," she said. "They are all readers. Some read extremely well. We're trying to expand their knowledge."
In a regular exercise, for example, the children take a specific Greek or Latin root word and think of derivatives. One day last week, Washington read the younger children (grades one through three) a story about food and asked them to draw their favorite foods.
It was Dr. Gladys Bray who asked Washington to join the small staff. From the beginning, the parents received help and encouragement from Bray, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission who teaches biology at the Ellington School of the Arts. Bray is teaching math at the community school this summer.
Last week, she reviewed fractions with the older children and introduced this aspect of math to the younger students. The parents suggested she end the lesson by letting the children slice fruit into fractional pieces and eat it.
One day after math, the children took turns slicing watermelons, cantaloupes and honeydew melons into "halves, fourths, eighths and sixteenths."
After the class, the younger students went to the neighborhood library, where a librarian showed them the fractions used to tell time and to count money.
In addition to Washington and Bray, there are 10 teacher's aides at the school, provided by the the District's Summer Youth Program. The parents also obtained use of a school bus for field trips.
On a blackboard in the school's office is a sample of one week's activities. It includes the weekly trip to the "Future Center" at the Capital Children's Museum, where students learn to operate computers; two trips to the library; a visit to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and another visit to the museum for the "Mexican Tour," when students will make tacos and eat cactus.
"The children are seeing what resources are available in their community," said Bobo. "It gives them a greater sense of community."
"In the back of my head, I always wanted the children to learn certain skills, but also be able to apply them in their everyday lives," Grant said.
"We felt it was necessary for children to learn how to use money," she added. "Parents are always saying, 'Money doesn't grow on trees.' So we're taking them to the Bureau of Engraving to see where money is made.
"My daughter had weather in school this year, and she learned the names of the clouds," said Grant. "But I wanted her to be able to understand the weatherman on TV. We had the Suitland weather bureau send us a meterologist."
Bit by bit, the volunteers and teachers have transformed Anne Beers into a place where children love to learn.
When 7-year-old Tamara Johnson got a rash from poison ivy, she begged Grant to let her stay in school.
"I didn't want to go home. I like it here," Tamara explained later.
"She cried; it was so good to hear a child cry to stay in school," said Grant.
Daryl Bobo, 6, said the community school is "fun. I like the computers and the trips . . . and reading," he added.
Grant said her own children say they are not bored this summer.
"I like everything about it," said Reginald, Grant's 11-year-old son. "I would be swimming usually. But this is more fun."