I was living in a small town in upstate New York called Warsaw where many migrant workers and their families came. These children needed support learning to read. I volunteered. I had studied fine arts and art education, and was working in the advertising industry as a graphic artist; I felt ill-prepared to support their significant needs. The children I was tutoring captured my heart and I asked myself how I could do more.
I decided to go back to school and get a Master’s Degree in Reading Education. We moved to Buffalo, NY, and I began working as a reading teacher and coach in an inner-city school; this felt like home. Another move landed me in Rochester, NY. Currently, I’m an Administrative Specialist at the Rochester City School District. I’m responsible for supporting elementary summer learning, arts integration, and I oversee a number of unique grants.
In 2011, five schools were selected to receive a grant from The Wallace Foundation to create innovative summer learning programs. I remember asking myself, “What would I want my children to be doing during the summer?” I knew there needed to be arts integration and innovative/exciting physical activities. Could we incorporate these in a way that also supported academics? We wanted to prevent the summer learning loss and have fun!
I wanted to create a culture that was going to be warm, supportive and inviting to our students, the families we serve and our hard-working teachers. I hired and worked with incredible professionals. Every year we had a theme. One year, we took a cut-out of Carmen Sandiego all over Rochester and photo-shopped pictures as part of an adventure game for kids. They would get a clue every Friday, and the administration and leadership would play along, too. The students were given academic challenges that were problems and when solved correctly provided clues helping them solve where Carmen might be. We created photography books documenting the whole process. Parents told us they had never heard their kids talk so much about school. Students were having fun; families shared in the joy of learning.
We selected activities that many urban children aren’t able to participate in because of cost (rock-climbing, African drum and dance classes, glass fusing, photography, painting murals, drama, etc.). We taught swimming and helped kids overcome their fear of water. We did cooking classes where we made cookbooks and recipe cards. We supported our children academically. All of our children made progress, including those with special needs and those whose facility with English was minimal. We used project-based learning—everything was hands-on.
The Rochester Summer Scholars Program received The National Excellence in Summer Learning 2015 Award. An enormous success, we are now sustaining what we learned and planning more programs district-wide.
There are many pathways to make a positive difference with our children. I began as a volunteer and it became my life’s work. How can someone not feel good when they see the joy in a child’s eyes, when they’ve done something for the first time as a result of your help or initiative?
If you’re interested in becoming a summer learning volunteer in Rochester, contact Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez. For more ideas and opportunities to help kids in your community this summer, join the Gen2Gen Summer Challenge!