SWANTON — The sky’s the limit for students attending the Missisquoi Valley Union Summer Academy.
Good thing, too, as students in last week’s session were shooting their homemade rockets high into the dark, storm cloud-filled heavens. Followed by excited eyes, pointing fingers, exclamations of “whoa!” and “cool!” and their own trail of smoke, rockets shot up before falling back to Earth. Most made it safely back to the hands of their makers, though one unlucky missile landed in the nearby woods.
The activity made for an exciting morning, what with launching things into the sky, chasing them as they came back down, and trying to do it all before imminent thunderstorms finally rolled in.
The rocketry class was one of three activity choices last Wednesday morning in the first of the day’s three two-hour sessions. Taught by 8th grade science teacher Rich Ballard, the students were launching the rockets the third day of the week’s session. They planned to do it again last Friday, and last Thursday they were going to the Franklin County State Airport, where students would get to fly, most for the first time.
“Our kids generally don’t get the opportunity to go up in airplanes,” said Heather Moore, the director of MVU’s Summer Academy.
Alicia Fellows, 12, described her first time in a plane as part of the academy’s aviation program in an earlier session this summer. “It feels like you’re just riding in a car,” she said.
Fellows added, “[I’d] never been in a big [commercial] plane.”
Her classmate, Hayley Lampman, 14, had never flown before Thursday’s trip to the airport either. “I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” she said on Wednesday.
Rocketry and aviation are just two of the academy’s 25-plus programs that let students mountain bike, watch movies, make movies, take photographs, paint, conduct wetland science, and do many more activities. All take place in “J-pod,” or the school’s 7th and 8th grade building.
“It’s more of a hands-on format than a regular school day,” said Moore.
Giving kids the chance to explore, learn and have fun is the purpose of the MVU Summer Academy, a program that began this summer. In addition to offering recreational and educational activities between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. every weekday between Jun. 23 and Aug. 1, the program provides free transportation as well as breakfast and lunch for participating students.
According to Moore, the Summer Academy is made possible through a Vermont Agency of Education 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, which ensures the future of MVU’s summer program for five years.
“It’s pretty substantial,” Moore said of the funding.
The program has seen success during its first year, with anywhere between 20 and 30 students attending each day. According to Moore, she’s received good feedback from parents, teachers and students.
Ballard, who has been a teacher for 29 years, said he sees a great benefit to engaging students in fun but educational activities during the summer.
“Some of these kids have never built anything like [rockets] before,” he said. “It keeps them thinking throughout the summer. It gets the kids doing some problem solving.”
Ballard added, “Obviously, I think this is great.”
In addition, students attending MVU’s summer school are also in the building, and they can catch a ride, eat meals, and even do the activities with the in addition to their supplemental summertime studies.
According to Moore, the Summer Academy was specifically built around summer school students in order to make summertime academics more feasible. Janet Hatin, the director of MVU’s Summer School for 12 years, said the free transportation, meals, and promise of fun activities afterwards have made a noticeable impact.
“It’s been a really beautiful melding of crossroads,” she said last week. “It’s definitely pulled kids in to come in and do some extra work.”
Hatin said that the meals and free transportation are “huge” for some kids coming from low-income backgrounds, and the fun activities, such as launching rockets, help create a better academic environment as well. Kids want to get to school, finish their work, and go out to play.
“They come in and get it done and they feel more positive in the classroom,” said Hatin. “They feel more positive towards their academics because of it.”