Out-of-school program gives elementary students an extra dose of science

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Intensive science, technology and engineering instruction is generally reserved for students in middle grades and higher. But this year, some CPS 1st- graders are getting a taste of these disciplines through in a program that designers hope will set the stage for the city’s children to be globally competitive.

Intensive science, technology and engineering instruction is generally reserved for students in middle grades and higher. But this year, some CPS 1st- graders are getting a taste of these disciplines through in an innovative program that designers hope will set the stage for the city’s children to be globally competitive.

The program is the brainchild of Kenneth Hill, who created a program in Detroit that starts with kindergartners and goes through students’ senior year in high school.

Last fall, 65 1st-graders and their parents became the first to participate in the Chicago Pre-College Science and Engineering program. For four weeks, students from seven schools in low-income neighborhoods spent three hours on Saturdays studying chemistry at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Each fall, the program will add a grade and eventually have an enrollment of 360 kids and a staff of 30 teachers, Hill says.

Hill began the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program in 1976 to bring in additional science and math curricula, particularly in schools with high African-American and Hispanic enrollment. After 27 years developing and overseeing the Detroit program, Hill settled back into his hometown of Chicago for retirement. But his respite was short-lived. He became increasingly aware Chicago schools also needed more science and math study. By 2009, Hill had found funders for a new program: The Steans Family Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, The Chase Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Hill focused recruitment efforts in the Bronzeville, Englewood, North Lawndale, Little Village and Hyde Park neighborhoods—places where black and Latino students typically have fewer extracurricular academic opportunities.

“The population we’re working with historically has not been viewed as having the skills to be successful in science and engineering, based on the media and culture,” says Hill. “But we know that isn’t true. These kids are interested in science. They need a strong curriculum and strong teachers. It’s that simple.”

Teachers and administrators at Pershing East, Doolitle, Miles Davis, Wells, Whitney, and Dvorak recommended students they believed would succeed in the program. Parents must sign a contract agreeing to keep their children enrolled for three years, and accompany their children to all Saturday sessions.

During the session, parents divide their time between helping their children with hands-on activities and attending training sessions to show them how to continue the lessons at home.

“We want the parents to provide continuation of this education,” says Hill. “School alone, in our view, is not enough. It takes the parent and the school: team work is critical for the child to be successful.”

Suzanne Wasson, administrator of the Detroit program and coordinator for the expansion to Chicago, says she has been impressed with the dedication of parents—particularly dads, who have made up about a third of parents in the Chicago program.

“The power of our program comes from the parent participation,” Wasson says. “Everyone wants to get involved, moms, dads, grandmas as well. We have to limit them to one per child because of space constraints.”

In a preliminary evaluation, the majority of parents gave the program the highest score possible, says Mary Shannan McNair, an associate professor at Oakland University in Michigan, who completed the evaluation.