Summer school is hot

By Moira MacDonald ,Toronto Sun

First posted: Saturday, July 9, 2011 4:04:57 EDT PM

Jonathan Penacho could be doing what lots of 13-year-olds do in the first week of summer holidays — hanging out at home.

Instead, he’s working on his reading and writing at an optional three-week, non-credit summer school held for Grade 7 and 8 Toronto Catholic board students at Loretto College in west-end Toronto.

It wasn’t exactly his choice, he admits — his parents had something to do with that.

“It’s actually fun,” Penacho says as he researches and starts writing a short computer assignment on an unusual sport (his pick is cricket).

The assignment is designed to get students pulling information out of text and working on story structure.

“It’s better than relaxing at home, because you have no one to play with there.”

Loretto is one of nine Toronto Catholic high schools offering the program until July 22, meant to sharpen weaker students’ literacy and math skills and get them used to being in a high school before moving on to Grade 9. Supported by funds from Ontario’s education ministry, the program is ultimately intended to prepare students for the Grade 9 provincial math and Grade 10 literacy tests.

“It’s a hard transition, so it’s great for them to have this time,” says literacy teacher Isabel Quintaneiro. “By the time they get to Grade 8, the learning gaps can be huge.”

Students can come for a half-day of reading and writing, a half-day for math, or both. About 175 students are attending at Loretto; 1,000 across the Toronto Catholic system. A similar, half-day program is offered at Toronto public schools.

“Our high schools have noticed a significant improvement” among students who do the summer prep program, says Alex Mazzucco, program coordinator for Toronto Catholic.

Scarborough’s Jean Vanier Secondary School, also a summer school site, has credited student participation in the program for helping it become one of the biggest local overachievers in the recent Fraser Institute high school report card standings.

The relaxed environment, smaller classes and remedial focus keep math teacher John Coscarelli coming back year after year. When everyone knows they’re there for help it takes the pressure off, he says.

“They’re ready to learn,” says Coscarelli, working on rates and ratios with his class the morning I visit.

“It definitely prepares them for the following year and gives them the basics. They feel a lot more confident with the math.”

Students spend a third of their day working in a computer lab with interactive software that reinforces what they’re learning in class the same day. If that sounds like catering to the digital generation, supervising teacher Daniele Montanaro says even kids who know their way around Facebook are often unfamiliar with basic computer skills and shortcuts.

Those skills will come in handy when more online learning is expected in high school. As well, Montanaro can track whether students log on later at home to do more of the literacy and math exercises — encouraging independent learning is another goal.

The summer school targets students working on their English language skills too — like Pius Adu Adarkwa, a friendly 14-year-old who came to Canada last year from Ghana.

“I like it,” Adarkwa says in his Grade 8 math class. “I was in ESL (English as a second language) at my school, D’Arcy McGee, so I am working on my reading and math.”

Asked if he’d rather be doing something else, he just smiles.

Still, there are worse things a kid could be doing than tackling exponents on a hot day in an air-conditioned building.

And the real summer vacation is just two-and-a-half weeks away.

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