A three-year, $175,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to the Blount County Education Foundation has been used for the last two school years to implement a threepart ensemble of learning support and enhancement programs called Expanding Horizons. This school year is the final year for the program under the grant umbrella, although plans are to continue it with other funding sources.
The three elements of Expanding Horizons are (1) summer learning camps and library access programs, (2) a package of 11 projects targeted to at-risk students at various grade levels, and (3) Blount County High School Ambassadors, a civic participation and leadership development organization.
Summer camps/library learning
Summer camps are conducted at schools around the county, covering all grade levels, and featuring subjects as diverse as gardening, graphic design, law, music, engineering, theater, and crime forensics, as well as reading, math, and science. Library programs highlight- ing intensive reading as well use of various other library resources are conducted for various lengths of time and for various groups at schools around the county as well. A total of 81 camps and 23 library programs attended by more than 2,300 students have been held over the last two summers, supported by the ARC grant. Offerings for what may well be the biggest camp and library program to date are now being planned for the coming summer. (Grant funds totaling $50,000 were spent for each of the first two years of Expanding Horizons. The ARC grant outlay for the final year, 2016-2017, is $75,000.)
So, what’s the learning outcome for those who attend? When students attending summer camps and library programs were tested at the end of the following school year, learning gains in the range of 12.8 percent to 20.4 were found consistently over three years of reading and math results for those attending, compared to the total student population. A major objective of the effort – to offset the routine loss of student reading and math proficiency over the summer vacation period – was thus achieved and documented. At-risk projects
Funds totaling $35,228 from the ARC grant will be used this year for 11 projects to support at-risk students at all levels throughout the school system. Over the first two years, nearly 2,500 students were included in the projects with another contingent of students being served in the current school year. The projects focus on using new technologies such as iPads and laptops – along with technology-oriented teaching methods – to teach reading and math to at-risk students struggling with fundamentals. Projects feature innovative learning environments and designs such as (1) an outdoor greenhouse to stimulate interest in learning math, science, and engineering applications through multi-sensory experiences, and (2) use of “manipulatives” (like Legos and other manually-manipulated objects) synchronized with computer-screen feedback to learn and sharpen language skills. Ambassadors
The ARC grant has been used for the past two years, and will be used again this year, to support Blount County High School Ambassadors. Each year all ambassadors, numbering more than 80 students, are brought to Palisades for a one-day training session to prepare them to serve effectively. Also, each year ambassadors make a field trip to Montgomery while the Legislature is in session to observe and experience state government in action. Funds from the ARC grant are used to cover the costs of both events. Contributors
“I feel we owe a great debt of gratitude to the Appalachian Regional Commission,” said Mitchie Neel, executive director of the Blount County Education Foundation and Expanding Horizons overall director. “The ARC grant enabled us to continue offering and expanding for three years the programs we had developed as a part of the Blount County Education Foundation’s mission to promote academic excellence. We are pursuing other funding sources and other delivery methods to continue the program beyond this summer, when the ARC funding comes to an end. We also owe a debt to our community partners, and continue to cultivate them to sustain our mission. We couldn’t do it without them,” she said.
Program partners include: Appalachian Regional Commission, CAWACO RC&D Council, Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, United Way of Central Alabama, Blount County Literacy Council and Literacy Council of Central Alabama, Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI), Wallace State Community College, Blount County Extension Service, and Blount County Master Gardeners. Other partners contributing expertise for summer camps include Richard Phillips of Say What Logo and Print Design, David Osborne of Alabama Power, Carron Clem of Covered Bridge Players, District Attorney Pamela Casey, Blount County-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce director Aimee Wilson, the Blountsville Historical Society, and a number of other individuals and volunteers.