BELLINGHAM - In a Shuksan Middle School classroom a group of students is gathered, watching with anticipation as a wrecking ball swings into a wall, leaving crumbled mortar and rubble in its wake.
The students are testing the small walls they've built in their engineering-focused lessons during Bellingham School District's migrant summer school program. After a golf ball on a string toppled the walls Thursday, July 24, they got a chance to improve their designs to make them sturdier.
The six-week program, which includes about 40 migrant students from kindergarten to eighth grade, is in its third year in the district. Students are considered migrants if they've moved in the last three years because their parents are involved in an industry such as agriculture, fishing or forestry. Those moves can be disruptive for learning because students may be missing portions of school or missing lessons as they change schools, so the federal government provides grants for additional school in the summer.
"I don't want to label all of these students as at-risk, but these students have situations that make their learning more challenging, and one of them is the moving piece," said Jeff Hilburn, who heads the migrant summer school program. "You throw in language acquisition and low income, and learning gets even more challenging for these students."
The summer program is intended to help them catch up and get ready for the next school year.
"What you're hoping to accomplish is to eliminate or minimize the summer dip when students forget some of the skills they've worked to learn during the school year," he said.
The focus this summer is on science and engineering, subjects the district identified as in need of improvement. The students are broken up into three classes: kindergarten through second grade, third through fifth and sixth through eighth.
The youngest group got to work on building and materials. Genesis Perdomo, who is entering first grade this fall, said she has had fun building things and she's getting better at math. Because the day includes breakfast and lunch, it also has given her something to eat during summer.
Brianna Reyna said she loves talking about technology and teamwork and learning about science, and she feels like the classes are helping to get her ready for starting third grade in fall.
"It prepares me," she said. "I know what to do at school and can tell the teachers what I learned and tell the kids what I learned, too."
Every year, Abigail Morales and her family go to Mexico, and she misses more than a week of school. At summer school, she feels like she has a chance to catch up and get prepared for third grade. She gets to read, learn how to write more words and learn about technology and science. Her goal is to get "smarter and smarter."
"I feel comfortable here," she said. "I love all my teachers."
Beth Jimerson taught Abigail in second grade at Alderwood Elementary School and said she sees a lot of confidence-building for her and other students in the program. Being surrounded by other students who speak the same language and have similar backgrounds helps the kids feel more comfortable.
"It's fun to see her in this environment because she's really blossomed," said Jimerson, who is teaching summer school. "She's funny and a little more outgoing in this environment than she was in the school environment."
Gladys Ramos, who is going into ninth grade in fall, and her sister, Jessica, who is entering seventh, moved to the area from El Salvador last November. Marilyn Silva, who is going into ninth grade, helped translate for the girls and said the summer program has helped them to learn more English, meet new friends and learn more about science.
She said the sisters had a "whoa" moment as they learned about the scientific process and came to understand concepts like gravity. Though Marilyn had some science knowledge before the program, she's getting a more in-depth education in the summer courses.
"I like that we get to do experiments," she said.
That hands-on, experiential learning is what Hilburn hopes will make the lessons stick. The oldest class went to Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, and their final project will put their science and engineering lessons to the test as they build and move tennis balls through a Rube Goldberg machine.
"Hopefully when they go back to school in a few weeks, the science lessons won't be as intimidating for them," Hilburn said. "School won't be as intimidating for them."
In a regular class setting, a lot of these kids would be in the back or taking notes in the lab rather than running the experiments, Hilburn said. In summer school, those students who might not have taken leadership roles - maybe because of language barriers or not knowing their peers or shyness - are working with other students to help translate or explain concepts. They're taking the lead.
"The hope is to grow self-confidence so they feel they can learn," Hilburn said. "We all want kids to be passionate learners."