Summer STARS Thriving at Stuart Country Day School
July 28, 2008 – For the 19th summer running, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart is hosting its Summer STARS Program, drawing 125 students from Trenton’s public and parochial schools and various community organizations. Thanks to a $50,000 contribution from Bristol-Myers Squibb, which has generously sponsored the program since 1991, Summer STARS continues to provide valuable enrichment for children from Trenton’s inner city.
The theme for the 2008 STARS Program is “Team Work,” and there is no better working example of this concept than the STARS staff itself. The teachers in the program, both from Stuart and other school districts, return year after to year to spend their summers with the young students.
Asked why so many teachers choose to teach STARS every summer, program director, Samantha Thetgyi Ryan, says, “First, our educators know that our students choose to be here during their precious summer break because they are eager to learn. Because of this, they are great students to teach.
“The type of relationship we get to foster with our students is special in that we are not a laid back ‘summer camp’ and we are not a rigid ‘school’ either. Our teachers and students are privileged to have the best of both worlds. We are able to talk about life and learning with the students in a way that we can't normally do during the school year. Perhaps partly because of this, each year, strong bonds between the faculty and students are made. These strong bonds are what keep our teachers coming back. The teachers love the kids, and the kids love the teachers. It's as simple as that.”
The children who come to Summer STARS are in Grades 2-6 and for four weeks, they immerse themselves in a special blend of academics and summertime fun. Courses in science, math, reading, and writing develop and hone the students’ skills. Activities such as swim lesson at the YMCA every Wednesday for the younger children, an African drum performer last week, and plays and concerts put on by the children themselves enhance the learning that is happening in the classrooms.
Heidi Echternacht, a Stuart teacher and the community service director for STARS, finds that the “really amazing kids” are what make the program so special. And some of those amazing kids return year after year, too. Alaina Gaines, a 2008 Stuart graduate, first came to Summer STARS as a 3rd grader. Now she is the assistant to the director of the program. Says Gaines, “I am always willing to come back and be involved and because I love the kids. It is amazing how much the program helped me and now I can be a part of helping others.”
Gaines adds that what she really wants is to “congratulate the kids. It’s pretty amazing. They are not at all sad to come to school in the summer. They come to play and have fun while learning…. The kids love it so much and they are willing to spend their summer learning.”
One of the more impressive experiences the students encounter can be found in the instrumental music program. Instructor David Geltch, a music teacher from the Manalapan-Englishtown school district, has been teaching 5th and 6th graders in the Summer STARS program for the past 7 years. His approach is wonderfully ambitious, if also, in his own words, “hair-raising.” Geltch works with children who have no knowledge of playing a musical instrument and, in four weeks’ time, has the new musicians performing in an ensemble.
The STARS’ “Band-in-a-Month” project is truly amazing when one considers that the students are choosing to learn woodwind, brass, or percussion instruments that they have never studied before. David Geltch observes that STARS offers the children a “risk-free environment where everyone is starting fresh and together.” And by the end of four weeks, not only do the musicians have a foundation for reading music, but they are also confident enough to perform together.
What makes Summer STARS a rich experience for Geltch is “knowing that I am teaching students that don’t all have this opportunity during their school year. It means a lot to me that I am reaching those particular students. They have tremendous talent and I am able to watch them make those connections.”
The “Band-in-a-Month” performs this year on August 1, 2008 at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. It’s where STARS are born.