Battle Creek

Burma Center, R.I.S.E., and VOCES offer summer learning opportunities for the communities they serve

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Piano lessons, bus rides, and exposure to skilled trades are included alongside reading and STEM activities — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — in summer learning programs that are underway in Battle Creek.

The Burma Center, R.I.S.E. (Reintegration to Support and Empower), and VOCES are each offering learning opportunities geared towards addressing the specific needs of students within the communities they serve. Input from parents and caregivers of these students weighed heavily into what each of these organizations is in the process of teaching, say those who are overseeing each of these summer learning programs.

“We actually held parent listening sessions before we started planning for summer programs so we could find out what parents want their kids to have and what they want us to do,” says Jenifer Pui, Education Engagement Program Administrator for the Burma Center. “Some of the input came from last year’s summer program and what additional things students want to do more of or learn.”

This included piano lessons that are being taught by teachers involved in piano lab programming offered through the Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival. The piano lessons have been going on since the summer of 2019 with virtual classes offered during this past school year.

Makyla Gibson, 12, listens to the instructor during a RISE summer program session.“Lots of parents and students wanted to learn piano. I can see this piano portion of our program being expanded,” Pui says. “We would like to have a permanent piano lab in our building that could be used by other organizations.”

On the more traditional academics side, there will be an emphasis on reading books that focus on the Asian and Burmese cultures and classes led by a Burmese language instructor who will teach students how to read and write in Burmese.

“Most of our Burmese residents are Chin people and Burmese is not our first language however the Burmese language is the formal language. There are hundreds of different dialects and so many different languages that we speak,” Pui says. “Burmese is the common language used in meetings and another reason why parents want their kids to learn it. If they were to go back to Burma to visit they want their kids to be able to read and understand.”

Students in grades 6-12 have exposure to this same curriculum and English writing classes taught by former Battle Creek City Commissioner Andy Helmboldt. They also make college visits.

“They will focus more on college and career readiness, which will include doing research about colleges and listening to guest speakers who will come in to talk about what they do,” Pui says.

A team of five, including two teachers, staff the program funded primarily through the Lakeview School District, Battle Creek Public Schools, and Catalyzing Community Giving.  Additional funding also was provided by Duncan Aviation, the United Way of the Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The Burma Center has been offering summer learning programs in different iterations well before Pui began working there in 2017. She says over the years it has expanded and this year has met its maximum capacity of 80 students in grades K-12. A fee per student is charged because Pui says she “wants parents and families to feel like they have buy-in and to make sure those who sign-up will be here.”

Fees for the six-week program, which concludes on Aug. 13, are $100 for students in grades K-5 and $75 for students in grades 6-12. The price differential reflects the number of days the two groups attend the program. The group of younger students meets for half-day sessions on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with half-day sessions on Tuesday and Thursday reserved for the older students. This fee covers snacks and all of the learning materials.

Joshua Bawi, 9, concentrates on a summer school session at the Burma Center.Scholarships also were made available to ease the financial burden that some families have. Pui adds that she is not surprised that the program is full to capacity given the virtual and in-person learning experience students had because of the pandemic.

“In the past, summer schools are for those who needed it and this year they have opened up to more students,” Pui says. “Lakeview and BCPS (Battle Creek Public Schools) have expanded their summer school programs because of having to go through the hybrid learning.”

Concerns about ensuring that students are up to speed when they return to school this fall have prompted a more intentional focus on summer learning. It has become more important than ever this year as reflected in the number of students enrolled at the Burma Center, Pui says.

“In general, our Burmese community really values education. It’s summer but they want their kids to be doing something. They don’t want them to just not do anything,” she says. “I see the community placing a high value on education.” to a Challenge

“So many parents and schools were struggling with keeping kids on track and then there were kids who weren’t getting on virtually,” this is what led to R.I.S.E. starting the Student Empowerment Program in November that has transcended into the summer program available to between 30 and 50 students, says Damon Brown, Founder and President of R.I.S.E.

The earlier program included a partnership with BCPS for students who were experiencing challenges with virtual learning or were suspended from school. Jacqueline Patrick-James, Director of the Student Empowerment Program and R.I.S.E. Board Treasurer, says this was an alternative learning option taking place in a safe and structured environment with the Social Emotional Learning component which serves as the foundation for everything R.I.S.E. offers.

Parris Bolden, a student at Davenport University and a Battle Creek Central graduate, works with Riyana Palmer, 12, during RISE’s summer school program at Washington Heights United Methodist Church.In addition to students from BCPS, the school year program was working with students enrolled in Endeavor Charter Academy, Harper Creek, Lakeview, Marshall, and Pennfield schools. They each had different schedules and curriculum. Tutors working alongside Brown and Patrick-James worked with them and monitored their progress.

“Once we got them logged in, we were making sure they were engaging in their classes and the big thing was missing assignments,” Brown says. “We were able to figure out what the missing assignments were and what they needed to do. A lot of kids’ grades were suffering. We had one young man from Marshall who was recommended to us through his probation officer. When he started with us, he had a 1.4 GPA and by the time he was out, he had a 3.3 or higher.”

The summer program, which began on June 29, will continue to focus on individual needs under the direction of Patrick-James and Brown and instructors, including Reverend Dr. William Bell, pastor for St. Mark’s CME Church and science teacher, who will be teaching science classes incorporating STEM.

“We did student assessments that whole first week, getting to know the students where they are academically, socially, and emotionally,” Patrick-James says. “The morning will be on academic and the afternoons will be more on social and emotional learning.”

The Student Empowerment Program also has teamed up with Kellogg Community College to expose students to careers in the skilled trades.

“We will take groups of kids and show them how to put up drywall. They will get in and learn how to do those types of skills,” Brown says. “Instructors from KCC will be coming here to teach them. This will give them exposure to other career pathways.”

The Student Empowerment Program is divided up into a learning component with a maximum capacity of 30 students and an after-school extracurricular and recreational piece available to 50. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday students receive instruction in literacy, mathematics, and STEM. The Battle Creek Community Foundation provided $8,000 to fund the program offered at no cost with some additional financial support from the United Way of the Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region. Brown says they are always in need of more monetary contributions. 

Breakfast and lunch are provided during the academic part of the day and a snack is provided for the recreational component. Many of the families of these students are experiencing food insecurity and they receive boxes when they need them filled with healthy foods as well as personal hygiene items and cleaning supplies.

“They’re not only coming to get educational support, but also mental and emotional support,” Brown says. “Some of the parents may need clothes or counseling and we provide resources for that.”

Built into the teaching is the Social Emotional Learning component which she describes as a wraparound service that addresses non-academic issues students are dealing with.

“We did a lot of goal-setting, rooted in SEL (Social Emotional Learning). This summer learning program is about more than just adding, subtracting, and multiplying. These kids need to develop intrinsic motivation,” Patrick-James says. “Our goal to keep them engaged and nurture that love for learning. We had one parent who was concerned because her child’s whole school year had been virtual. Our summer program will give him that in-person classroom feel again. He will be re-conditioned for in-person learning in a structured setting, something that was lost with virtual learning.”

The learning loss during the school year had the potential to be compounded by additional learning loss during the summer break, Brown says.

The focus for R.I.S.E. is on five program areas: Social Emotional Learning, family engagement, inclusion and equity, and youth leadership. These are incorporated into the SEP framework.

Teacher Niang Siam shows a picture book to students during a summer school session at the Burma Center.“We do that through SEL (Social Emotional Learning) skills which focus on eight areas that include personal responsibility, goal-directed behavior, social awareness, decision-making, relationship skills, self-awareness, and self-management,” Brown says. “We are focused more on the social and emotional learning piece. Our kids struggle with literacy and math and this is a way to address that.”

Patrick-James says this is a way to level the playing field and empower her students. She says the reading list will include a lot of material illustrating the history and self-pride from the perspective of people of color, something they don’t get through the schools.

“It is targeted and culture-based,” she says.

The ultimate goal is to support and empower the kids in the Student Empowerment Program, Brown says.

“We want to prepare them for the upcoming school year in a way that they are at least supposed to be where they’re at. They have fallen behind at least a year,” he says. “We want to offer kids a safe, structured, and supportive environment so they have somewhere where they can grow and flourish.”

Ready to Ride, Prepared to Engage

The focus at VOCES is on learning and the organization has come up with some unique ways to do that while ensuring that the youth they represent feel comfortable in their community.

Jose Orozco, Executive Director for VOCES, says the children need to do a minimum of one activity each week for a civic engagement component of his organization’s summer program. They are doing this by riding the bus.

“We want to demonstrate to our community that Battle Creek Transit is safe,” he says. “We want this to be as impactful as it can be. We want to take kids to whoever may be willing to host us, fire stations or city hall, or Full Blast. The idea is to get them there on the bus. We want to see our community partners calling us to say, ‘How come you’re not visiting our place?’ We want our kids to get plugged into the community as soon as possible.”

Evilia Bautista, VOCES program manager, explains to a group of children how to board and ride a Battle Creek city bus.Orozco says he doesn’t think the city’s Latinx community has been exposed to or has awareness of bus transportation as a means to get around. He says this summer program could lead to future opportunities to translate signage and information on the BC Transit website.

“If our kids are able to help with this, it will be a lot more powerful. This exposure is setting up opportunities like this for them down the road,” he says. “We want our programming to be more student-led. Often, it’s not very client-centered and it comes down to how we as an organization can model what we’re doing for our future leaders. Our mission is to provide resources for community transformation. If we start engaging our kiddos while they’re young and promoting these opportunities as a way to get from place to place, they won’t be able to say, ‘there’s nothing to do.’ A lot of these places can be accessed right off of the bus. We’ve eliminated this barrier by figuring out to make it welcoming on the bus.”

In addition to mastering public transit, youth in grades K-5 are receiving boxes each week that are delivered to their homes containing STEM activities.

“The kids are receiving boxes and that right there was a big win for us because the kids are realizing that these boxes of supplies are especially for them,” Orozco says. “At the end of the summer if our kids are making comments like, ‘I can’t wait to go back to school’, we’ve done our job. If it gets them fired up, then as leaders we need to continue that conversation with school superintendents. We are recognizing that our main focus is to keep kids engaged.

“My background is in education and that’s my passion. If we can keep our kiddos reading and loving learning, the sky is the limit for that. They’re always going to be hungry to learn more.”

The younger children, like their counterparts in grades 6-12, are also participating in a reading program offered through Willard Public Library.

However, the reading program for the older youth is a bit more demanding with a reading log that they are being asked to keep. The group for older youth also is more focused on learning and refining leadership skills through Creative Leaders United and a Youth Council Group.

“For the high school group, the main thing is to identify what this group is going to be. We’ve got seven or eight kiddos around the table and we’re recognizing that once school starts we want them to be able to fully participate,” Orozco says. “The questions we are asking right now is will it be an open or set group and is there any other youth council that they can support. We want to see what they can present to the community from a youth perspective which includes the politics around re-districting.”

This involvement is part of an overall emphasis on preparing these older students and their families for college.

“We are trying to cover the spectrum to support families for the next step, college, and career readiness. We have six two-hour-long training modules called Exit to Education that is intentionally to support families around going to college,” Orozco says. “The idea is to empower families with knowledge. We want to support the whole family unit with kids going to college.”

Abigail Hernandez-Aparicio, 7, introduces herself to a group of her peers at VOCES.Oftentimes it becomes apparent when these families come in to VOCES that they are in need of additional support or resources. As an example, they may come in to seek assistance with translation or housing and through this conversation, the staff at VOCES learns that they have a child in need of out-of-school support services.

“That gives us a way to start a conversation,” Orozco says.

The full-time staff of five and summer interns from Kellogg Community College, Western Michigan University, and Michigan State University wear many different hats and Orozco says one of his goals is to promote cross-training as a way to meet the needs of the Latinx community they serve.

“You may want to be an office assistant, but we want you training to be an interpreter or know something about housing resources so that we all share that capacity,” he says.

One year and four months into his job with VOCES, Orozco says one of the ideas he wants to get away from is that VOCES exists solely for Spanish-speaking members of the community or recent immigrants. He says he wants to see the Latinx community become more fully integrated and have representation on a broader scale.

“The goal of VOCES is serving as a bridge to that next step in the future and whatever success may look like for members of our community,” he says. “We are a connector for our community. We have to be ready to be advocates.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.