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Organizers of a summer virtual learning program hope the skills a group of Bluffton and Hilton Head Island students learned during the past two months will keep them on track during the upcoming academic year -- and into the future.
For the first time, the Beaufort County School District partnered with the Neighborhood Outreach Connection, a local nonprofit organization that brings a variety of services into low-income neighborhoods, to place 42 elementary and middle school students at risk of struggling academically into a free, Internet-based summer school.
Over the weekend, participating students and their parents, area educators, and outreach volunteers celebrated the students' graduation from the program with ceremonies at Bluffton House and The Oaks apartment complexes.
During Sunday's ceremony at The Oaks, Fred Washington, chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education, praised the students for their successful completion of the program and challenged parents and educators to stay on top of their progress.
"We can't do things the same old way and expect different results. We need adults to engage," he said. "Students see when adults are committed to them and change their behavior to reflect that. We need to keep challenging ourselves to get out of our comfort zone."
The 90-minute classes, held from June 15 to Aug. 5 in one-bedroom apartments at each complex, focused on reading comprehension, vocabulary and math. Students practiced their skills online on computers donated by the school district and private donors. The students' progress was monitored by the school district.
Although Neighborhood Outreach volunteers had hosted tutoring sessions during past summers, chairman Naren Sharma, who has a doctorate in economic development, said the computers have helped students stay on task and reduced the need for volunteers. He said computers also allow the school district to measure students' progress throughout the school year.
"The students are so fast -- they can manage on their own," Sharma said. "I think the model is unique because of the partnership between the parents, the schools and the Neighborhood Outreach Connection. We're able to duplicate what the schools are doing."
Sharma said organizers hope to increase next summer's enrollment. Nearly 100 families signed up for this year's sessions on Hilton Head and more than 120 wanted to participate in Bluffton, but many had to be turned away because of a lack of computers, space and volunteers. He said organizers would consider renting additional apartments.
At Sunday's ceremony, Lori Roos, a life coach and coordinator for the seven-week program, praised graduating students and local volunteers for their efforts. Roos said volunteers gave individual attention to students who were struggling and quickly saw results. Many students also arrived early and stayed late to help clean up, she said.
During the ceremony, each student was given a certificate, while others with good attendance and exemplary grades received medals.
One such student, Laura Hernandez, a rising fifth-grader at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts, said the classes helped her "do better on her school work" and focus. She said she would continue to attend tutoring sessions during the school year.
Sharma, who often visits students and their families at their homes, said Neighborhood Outreach will continue to broaden the types of programs it offers. Tutoring sessions for students begin after Labor Day, while classes, such as a Saturday homework session and an expanded art class, also will be offered.
"You must get the community involved and go to them," he said. "It doesn't work the other way around."
Follow staff writer Cassie Foss at twitter.com/LCBlotter.