About 84 River Forest and Forest Park students crowded the auditorium at Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School on July 19 for the Power Scholars Academy graduation ceremony, performing a TV skit, singing, reciting a poem in Spanish and more.
Power Scholars is a program designed to tackle summer learning loss, overcome the academic achievement gap between majority and minority students, and increase self-confidence for at-risk learners. It is produced and funded by Forest Park District 91 schools, River Forest District 90 schools, the West Cook YMCA and the Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) curriculum organization.
“It’s been really exciting to see how the partner organizations have been able to collaborate intentionally around serving our full community in a really thoughtful way by working together to meet the needs of the individual students,” D90 Superintendent Ed Condon said. “I think it has taken what each of the member organizations could do individually and elevated it to a much higher level.”
River Forest and Forest Park’s summer program represents the first time that two school districts have collaborated to launch Power Scholars, which is now in its second year. It also represents the first Power Scholars program in the area. In April, the West Cook Y honored superintendents from both districts with its prestigious Scott Gaalaas Community Partner Award — named after the organization’s late and longtime head — for the success of Power Scholars.
“This is a really good example of intervention. Something is happening that is not favorable and the collective was really decisive in saying, ‘We really want to address this,'” said Phillip Jimenez, president and CEO of the West Cook YMCA. “I think simply that the collaboration among the communities saying, ‘Not on our watch; we will as best we can address this issue,’ is really important.”
Organizations haven’t yet analyzed students’ social and academic progress from this summer’s program — they expect to present a final report in September or October — but expect results to mirror Power Scholars progress from last year, when a majority of scholars improved their math and reading comprehension, as well as said they felt more self-confident.
“We even had people creating fake applications this year,” said Tinisa Huff, assistant principal at Forest Park Middle School, who heads the program.
Huff said Power Scholars has already reported greater gains in enrollment and daily attendance. This summer, 84 students successfully finished the initiative, up from about 73 the year before. Average daily attendance rose to 92 percent, up from 86 percent last year, she said.
This year, officials said students also reported greater identification as a scholar, which Forest Park school board President Kyra Tyler said most impressed her.
“I love the constant reference to them as ‘scholars.’ We’re not referring to them as kids, students, children; we’re referring to them in this particular setting, and hopefully moving forward, as scholars,” Tyler said. “I think the impact that has on students’ self-confidence, and the way they see themselves, carry themselves, that it really plants a very powerful seed.”
Forest Park Superintendent Louis Cavallo said Forest Park has tried summer school in the past but Power Scholars is the only program that actually worked. He said administrators and staff will come together soon to discuss how this summer’s program went, and plan for next year’s program by building on the strengths and the challenges. He said he also plans to use parent input to improve the program, and maybe even incorporate elements of Power Scholars into Forest Park’s year-round curriculum.
“We have tried summer school … in so many different ways since I’ve been here — just to try and hit on something that not only accomplishes what we want it to but that will get kids to attend — and we honestly have not been successful until now,” Cavallo said.
He added that the program’s daily pledge helped drive a sense of belonging that is in line with the district’s work on equity.
Huff said she’s been thinking of how to create a pledge for the middle-schoolers that echoes the daily pledge all Power Scholars attendees said every morning.
“I’ve been thinking about how can we infuse that, how to have pride in school, have pride in who you are, and send you on your way every day,” Huff said. “You know what they say: ‘Imitation is the highest form of flattery.'”
In addition to improving test scores, Power Scholars also focused on enrichment for students and building life skills.
Condon said he believed the enrichment portion of the program — cake decorating, weekly field trips, music and art projects — made it more exciting for kids, which helped drive attendance.
“When you consider some of the other goals of the program, such as leveling the playing field and providing opportunities for all students to be successful, you know the enrichment lens really looks toward kids’ strengths and emphasizes those, builds upon those, instead of perseverating on deficiencies,” Condon said.