Bradenton, FL – When Danielle Laborde relocated to Bradenton from her life-long home in a coastal Haitian town this past year, the uncertainty of teaching her two young boys the language and ensuring that they would acclimate socially weighed heavy. To her pleasant surprise, an enthusiastic band of educators and volunteers had encountered many parents and children in similar circumstances, and had already hatched a plan to pitch in.
When Laborde was introduced to the Soar in 4 program, she found what all its participants have: a cost-free, interactive environment in which children become familiarized with the basics of education and socialization, and the parents gain new insights into unconventional teaching styles and educationally-rooted activities which can be easily replicated in the home.
Amidst glowing reviews of the program, what it had provided for her as a busy mother seeking constructive downtime away from iPads and among other children the same age as her boys, Laborde harbored only one complaint.
“[The session’s] are too short,” she lamented. “The boys love them, I love them. I just wish that they would last longer.”
This seems to be a common sentiment among parents, who have come to see Soar in 4 events as a rare excuse to get out of the house, hang with family and peers, get to know their children’s current and future mentors and educators, and see a tangible benefit in terms of their child’s learning.
“Each soar in 4 event we provide meaningful and intentional activities to demonstrate to the families how learning can be fun at home,” said Dr. Robin Thompson, Director of Early Learning for Manatee County Schools who knows all too well the deficit of preparedness with which many Manatee County students enter their first years in school. “All of the learning engagements are all play-based, interactive and aligned with the standards and benchmarks.”
Dr. Thompson and her team provide support for children and their families. Thus far, she’s seen the Soar in 4 program making a measurable impact in this preparedness deficit.
“Students who participate in ongoing Soar in 4 events have better attendance, come to school ready to learn, and are meeting and exceeding expectations based on the standards,” Dr. Thompson explains.
So, through a bit of creative learning, consistency, and parental involvement, Soar in 4 volunteers and benefactors are seeking to change the record on reading proficiency in Manatee County while keeping an emphasis on creative.
As an illustration of Soar in 4’s pre-K-friendly approach, Luanne Howe, an Early Learning Specialist, stars in Luanne’s Front Porch, an eight to ten-minute educational video which serves to inform students on the basics of the night’s topic. On this evening, children huddled in the South Florida Museum’s auditorium to be schooled some elementary-level approaches to nature-related concepts. A gaggle of pre-kindergarteners, siblings, and even parents could be heard whispering “spider” in response to Luanne’s pre-recorded prompt, “what is creepy and has eight legs”, the whole scene serving as a primer for the question-answer format the children will eventually encounter in the classroom setting.
Whether attendees are taking in the auditorium show, learning how to construct PVC piping and fittings to create elaborate tubular mazes, identifying different forms of seashells, or simply uttering a quick ‘hello’ to the teachers and volunteers they’ve come to know increasingly well, the mission of all of this remains singular: to provide early education to those students most in need, and to gift parents a framework for how to continue these critical lessons in the home.
Though Thompson and her team have made the mission a reality, taking the program from a single modest pilot program at Sea Breeze Elementary to an event held four times in the summer and once monthly during the year at the South Florida Museum, Manatee Public Library, and ArtCenter Manatee, the impetus for Soar in 4 was the concern of two local philanthropists, Steve and Carolyn Roskamp. As volunteers and organizers of Bradenton’s Alternative Christmas Market, which donates gifts annually while educating the public on local services for the needy, they have a knack for giving, and felt compelled to act when they found out that half of Manatee County students were reading below their grade level standard.
“When I had a conversation with John Annis of the Sarasota Community Foundation and he informed me that 30% of students in Sarasota County Schools were reading below grade level, I was stunned. He went on to tell me that Manatee County’s numbers were worse. I could not believe Manatee County had a staggering 50% of its students reading below grade level expectations,” Roskamp has said.
The Roskamps were integral in funding and organizing the Soar in 4 program, which is aligned with the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading and partners with United Way Suncoast, the Manatee Community Foundation, the Manatee Early Learning Coalition, the Patterson Foundation, and the Manatee Education Foundation.
Soar in 4 continues in its third year to pursue core educational goals. These milestones include 100% of Soar in 4 participants being reading-proficient by the end of third grade, including children of 100-120 families from three area Title 1 schools by the end of 2017-18. Broader goals are to help parents become their children’s first educators, to provide a sounding board for families who need counsel, and to continue the expansion of the Soar in 4 program to more Title 1 area schools and neighborhoods.
Parents such as Bianca Garcia, who brings her children to each Soar in 4 event, find the impact to be unassailable. Her son, who has tagged along with his older sister despite not yet being school-age, has taken to the spatial awareness-building activities, while her daughters have shown steady progress in their attitude towards studies that she cannot help but credit, at least in part, to the Soar in 4 initiative.
Garcia also pointed out that, like many, a younger version of herself would have appreciated a similar chance to get to know fellow students and teachers before that daunting first day of Pre-K or Kindergarten. Plus, she agrees that the free trips to the South Florida Museum, art gallery, and even the excuse to get to the library serve as the cherries on top of it all.
The results are in from all parties: Soar in 4 is a hit, and it appears to be a critical tool for improving the reading and learning capacity of Manatee County’s young people.