The room had a hum of excitement as students scurried around huddled in groups working on their projects. Laser-focused on the task at hand, students tinkered with aluminum foil, helping one another hold, cut and duct tape a cardboard box which would eventually become their very own solar ovens.
The rising sixth graders had just watched videos about how solar energy could change the lives of women on the African continent and they were putting what they saw into practice, learning how to harness solar energy to make cost-effective solar heaters and solar cookers to help people around the world.
The project was one of many topics being tackled by Scarsdale elementary school students as part of a new summer enrichment program developed by the district with the help of teachers, administrators and outside expertise to help fill learning gaps for students after a year of remote or hybrid education during the coronavirus pandemic.
An especially difficult year for elementary students and teachers who missed out on many community-based learning opportunities, the program dubbed SPARK (Summer Project-based Academic Retreat for Kids) is trying to bring that personal connectiveness back through project-based learning.
“This has been such a great opportunity for [teachers] to get in and hunker down with those really big questions [and give] kids … an opportunity to explore more [and] to question more,” said Assistant Superintendent Edgar McIntosh, who helped conceive the summer enrichment program.
Parents do not need to pay out of pocket to send their children to SPARK, which is funded at $250,000 from the district’s fund balance.
Development of the three-week summer program began in January, when half of elementary school grades were still learning remotely or in a hybrid environment.
According to McIntosh, the SPARK program, which has 311 rising first through sixth grade students attending at either Greenacres or Fox Meadow schools, was born out of one essential question: “What are we not able to engage in with students as much in our current hybrid model?”
“They didn’t have as much opportunity to sit down and discuss in depth a problem and linger there and look at all the different sides, and do as much exploration around these ideas,” said McIntosh.
The district engaged multiple stakeholders to come up with solutions and help bring to life a summer program that would bolster the missed opportunities students had faced throughout the pandemic-affected 2020-21 school year. Once the program concept was on the table in January, the district engaged elementary school innovation ambassadors at the district’s Center for Innovation (CFI), the Scarsdale Teachers Institute (STI) and the Center for the Professional Education of Teachers (CPET) at Teachers College Columbia University. The innovators reached a consensus that the program’s focus should be on completing project-based, authentic tasks rather than remediation, with one essential question — “As a responsible citizen of a local and global community, what can we do to make this world a better place?” — serving as the basis for the projects to be completed by students during daily two-hour sessions over three weeks.
“We wanted to do something that was different, that we don’t necessarily get a chance to do throughout the year,” said Trish Iasiello, assistant principal at Fox Meadow School and a coordinator for SPARK. “Many teachers weave some project-based learning into their curriculum, but throughout the year you’ve got certain standards that you have to meet and certain requirements that you have to meet for curriculum, so this is just a great way to just get people energized about it, give teachers some professional development around it and then the hope is that they take this back to their classroom to be able to do it throughout the school year.”
After the daily SPARK morning session ends approximately half the students are bused to the village’s recreation summer camp for afternoon programming. According to an email sent July 9 from Assistant Superintendent Eric Rauschenbach, students are no longer required to wear masks while indoors as of July 12, though they are strongly encouraged to do so. The most recent guidance from the New York State Department of Health only pertains to summer programs and doesn’t reflect masking mandates that may be in place for the fall.
Though teachers in the district have dabbled in project-based learning in their curriculum, SPARK is the first district program to focus solely on the educational pedagogy of project-based learning.
Separated into sections of no more than 18 kids, each grade tackles a different project devised by the instructors teaching SPARK classes.
Rising first graders are learning about endangered species and how to help animals with deteriorating habitats; rising second graders are doing a community study and making a guide to help new residents of Scarsdale; rising third graders are learning about animal shelters, with the ultimate goal of making a pitch to Mayor Jane Veron on why an animal shelter would be beneficial in the village; rising fourth graders are working on a garden design for Greenacres; rising fifth graders are learning about composting and how to promote it in the community through PSAs and brochures; and rising sixth graders are learning about harnessing solar energy to power people’s everyday lives. When the sixth graders are finished with their solar ovens, students will be able to use the sun’s rays to cook s’mores.
The projects are also meant to be interdisciplinary, allowing students to use a myriad of skills they had learned throughout the year to complete them. And the SPARK program doesn’t embody what many would traditionally think of in the context of summer school. Students use math to measure and cut solar ovens, for example, or use writing skills to prepare a proposal for a garden at Greenacres School.
“This is about providing an experience for all kids, not just those who are behind,” said Edgewood Elementary School Assistant Principal William Yang who is a coordinator for the program. “Every time somebody says summer school or summer program, they think immediately, ‘If I don’t do this I’m going to be left behind,’ … and we did not want that to happen.”
Students are also finding fun within the program, which more closely resembles a camplike environment than traditional school. Students are on their feet and working with one another and learning from speakers, who are often invited to present to students about their field of expertise as it relates to the SPARK projects. For example, first grade students were scheduled to meet virtually with a zoologist from the Bronx Zoo for a discussion of endangered wildlife, and recently, school board member Ron Schulhof held a presentation about composting for rising fifth graders in SPARK.
“There’s so many things that have been embraced by our teachers that I think it’s hard to go back from this,” said Yang. “The concept of apprenticeships and mentoring from real-world experts — that’s something that’s really hard to go back [from].”
Working intensely on her solar oven with two other students, incoming sixth grader Amra Kornusova said she’s been enjoying the program and the work is never boring. She said she initially thought the SPARK program would require learning math or writing in the traditional way, but instead it has refined her interest in saving the Earth and the climate.
“I really like learning about solar cookers and … how to make really cool stuff with clean energy that we use in everyday lives,” said Kornusova.
Incoming sixth grader Haley Lam, who said she usually doesn’t attend camp during the summer, has also been enjoying the program while learning how solar panels work with photovoltaic cells.
“It’s easier,” said Lam, comparing the program to regular school. “We do more group work and it’s really fun.”
Though the program has been an opportunity for students to expand their educational reach, the summer enrichment program has also been a professional development opportunity for Scarsdale’s elementary school teachers.
Beyond creating the curriculum and helping develop the projects for each grade, teachers are allowed to be more freeform, with no testing required or state standards needing to be met.
The program also pushes teachers out of their comfort zones. Jennifer Giustino, a music teacher at Edgewood School, for example, typically sees kids every six days during the specials time slot in a regular school year. But SPARK has put her into a general education classroom environment where she teaches the same students every day. Giustino is also teaching much more than music — she’s instructing rising fourth graders about gardens, how to gauge pH levels and how to test soil and, meanwhile, gaining a “greater perspective of what it’s like to be a classroom teacher” and proving that no matter what kind of teacher you are, you’re all on the same team.
Giustino said the SPARK program inspired her to take some general education classes when she pursues her plan to earn a Ph.D. “I think this gives me a little bit more insight on how to make decisions about my future,” she said.
In a rising sixth grade classroom, Amy Kenney, a fifth-grade teacher at Quaker Ridge School, said she decided to work in the SPARK program after the tough 2020-21 school year because the program was “joyful.”
“Concentrating on one thing for two hours a day for a short period of time for three weeks really lets the kids become immersed in the topic,” said Kenney, Scarsdale’s elementary social studies curriculum coordinator. “They’re able to research and answer their own questions. It’s all about inquiry [and] research.”
The classrooms also do community-based activities regularly to help build interpersonal interactions and relationships, which were severely inhibited during the pandemic. The SPARK program balances bringing kids and teachers together from Scarsdale’s five elementary schools and gives students who were fully remote during the last school year a chance to ease back into the classroom environment before the new school year begins.
Although SPARK was designed to be a one-time summer program, McIntosh said the district is documenting it, so that the teachers and the administration can share what they’ve discovered through the program’s learning models.
He said the SPARK program gave the district an opportunity to pose questions and engage in projects through a social justice lens and in line with the district’s goals, especially as it relates to sustainability.
As teacher Kenney sees it, today’s students are “going to be in charge of the world and need to know how to research, make informed decisions, think about different ways to solve problems, test them out, find the one [that’s] most efficient, cost effective and will help the most people.”
“That’s what I’m trying to impart on these kids,” she said.