Philadelphia Inquirer: In Chester program, food for body – and mind

In Chester program, food for body – and mind
By Daniel Block, Philadelphia Inquirer
August 6, 2016
Original Article

On a pleasant morning this week ripe for playing outside, Jahmad Lundy, 11, was doing what many adults would find abhorrent: He was sitting in front of a computer screen in a beige, air-conditioned room, transfixed by an online program displayed on a large television monitor.

The program was graphing out sound waves inside the room, and Lundy – who wore a black T-shirt – watched as the lines on the screen grew larger and smaller depending on how loudly he spoke.

Earlier in the day, Lundy and several other children worked through what looked like a Nintendo game, focusing on the green pipes and pixel-block landscapes on their monitors, or – if they were without a computer – on someone else’s screen. They played level by level and chatted among one another until finally, they received a certificate of completion.

Parents might disapprove, were it not for the certificates that read: “Congratulations on completing one hour of code.”

The children had been programming, and Lundy was pleased.

“We created a game,” he said.

Lundy is one of roughly 120 elementary and middle school students who participated in the third year of the Chester Housing Authority’s (CHA) summer food program, where Chester students – particularly those in grades K-8 – are provided with two meals. They also are provided some food for the mind.

Last year, children participating in the program were shown how to grow food and garden. From June 20 through Aug. 3 of this year, they were taught how to code.

Roughly one-third of Chester’s population lives below the poverty line, and the summer food program was originally designed to provide breakfast and lunch to children who may rely on school-provided meals during the year.

Steven Fischer, the executive director of CHA, said that the idea for including an educational component came during its second year, when CHA realized that there was a two-hour block between when it served breakfast at 8:45 a.m. and lunch at noon.

“We keep them for the whole morning,” Fischer said. “Hopefully, we can teach them some serious skills.”

Studies show that the performance gap between wealthy and poor children grows during the summer months, and there is research suggesting that keeping lower-income kids mentally active during the summers might help close the gap. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, only 48 percent of students at Chester High School graduate in four years, meaning that providing summer activity for city children is an important task.

“It’s all about people wanting to see their kids make a productive use out of their free time during the summer,” Fisher said. “In an affluent community, that tends to get taken care of. In our community, that’s less true.”

Whatever educational struggles Chester students may face, they were not apparent in the Ruth L. Bennett Community Center, where elementary schoolers displayed a dexterity with computers that belies most adults.

Jacob Demree, 19, a rising sophomore at Swarthmore College who was hired to help develop and lead the classes, said that he had been extremely impressed by his students.

“It’s summer, and it’s a beautiful day outside,” he said. “The fact that they come in here to a chilly computer lab to learn is amazing.”

The program also paid three high school students to help Demree provide instruction, giving teenagers familiar with computers a chance to practice their skills.

Khalif Freeman, 17, a rising high school senior from Chester who first learned to code during his sophomore year, said that keeping the students motivated to learn had proved difficult but rewarding.

“It’s been a journey,” said Freeman, who hopes to study either computer science, marketing or business in college. “Everything is always a new learning experience.”

Families with children in the program said they appreciated that their kids were kept busy.

“[The program] was magnificent,” said Iris White, 62, whose two grandchildren attended the program. “It gave me time to get my housework done.”

And the kids said their summer had proved both fun and enlightening.

“I like computers, and my mom told me about the program,” said Natasha Johnson, 12, of Chester. “I just started coming.”

Johnson – who will start seventh grade in the fall at Faith Temple Christian School – said that with a little help, she found coding easy.

“Once Mr. Demree told me how to do it, I got it really quickly,” she said.

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