Brain & brawn

Photo by Ron Leir East Newark students got to use part of the Harrison High athletic field for part of their Saturday Academy.
Photo by Ron Leir
East Newark students got to use part of the Harrison High athletic field for part of their Saturday Academy.


For kids like Perla Orozco, Gabriel Arias and Miguel Villalpando, it was the chance to exercise the brain and the body.

And, really, that’s what the big experiment was all about.

It was “Saturday Academy,” designed by the East Newark Public School as an enrichment project for those students looking to squeeze something extra from the public school experience.

“There never seems to be enough time in the school day,” said Superintendent/ Principal Patrick Martin.

The solution: Spend three hours in a school environment every Saturday for five consecutive weeks, topped off on the sixth Saturday, with a field trip to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan as a culminating session.

Kids from grades 3 through 8 were welcome – all on a voluntary basis – with parental consent required.

Each Saturday, the routine was the same: At 9 a.m., carefully attired students – boys are required to wear ties and neat shirts and slacks and girls must be dressed in skirts – showed up at the borough school, ready to hit the books.

Students were divided into two age groups: one for grades 3 and 4, the other for grades 5 to 8. During the first hour, one group would concentrate on language arts activities and the other, on math. For the next hour, the groups switched.

After finishing their classroom work, kids – and staff – changed into gym togs and, led by similarly attired Martin and teachers, jogged several blocks to the Harrison High School track-and-field complex to engage in 45 minutes of calisthenics, sprints and a run around the track before calling it a day and jogging back to the borough elementary school.

And not a dime for school personnel, teaching materials and supplies and the bus for the out-of-town field trip came from public coffers, Martin said. “Tops Diner paid for everything.”

Faced with the task of educating a student population, many of whose parents’ and grandparents’ primary language is something other than English, Martin has – since he was hired a year ago – worked with his supportive staff to implement strategies to boost kids’ morale and inspiring them to want to build their reading, writing and math skills.

The Saturday Academy is the latest effort in that campaign.

And it seems to have borne fruit, attracting between 35 and 40 boys and girls each Saturday. Most of them had close to regular attendance, as did staff.

Photos by Ron Leir Students enhanced their language arts and math skills at the Saturday Academy.
Photos by Ron Leir
Students enhanced their language arts and math skills at the Saturday Academy.

Maite Biggan, a school social worker, teamed with aide Diana Ropero and volunteer Harrison High senior Stephanie Pinto in guiding kids through language arts work while school psychologist Shelley Harrison and aide Marlene Hinostroza worked with kids on math problems.

Each week, Martin touched on themes like, “Always be on time” and “Winners never quit/Quitters never win” as touchstones that he hoped kids would bear in mind as they approached their conduct and studies.

The Observer spent one Saturday checking out the program and found Martin, filling in for a staffer who had a scheduling conflict, working with the older kids applying critical thinking to solving math problems, projecting temperature changes over time.

Across the hall, meanwhile, the younger kids split into smaller study groups preparing to give short oral presentations to the class on subjects like volcanos and earthquakes. They were also engaged in reading activities related to their upcoming visit to the museum.

Offering some post-Academy impressions, third-grader Miguel Villalpando, 9, said he relished the opportunity to participate because he was “interested in getting smarter and exercising.” An extra plus, he added, is, “now I know more about fractions.”

Fourth-grader Perla Orozco, 10, who enjoyed the museum exhibit on “the planets – especially Jupiter,” said that her mom registered her for the Academy, aside from the academics, “so I could run around” in a safe, controlled environment.

The chance for outdoor activity also resonated for sixth-grader Gabriel Arias, 12. “I really like playing soccer – it’s fun to run,” he said. But, just as important, he said, was picking up more knowledge. “I’m a good student and I thought the Academy could teach me extra stuff in geometry.”

Staffer Harrison said that, “Some kids were disappointed that the program has ended,” for now at least.

Will the Academy resurface next school year? If the money to finance it can be found, there is every hope that it will, said Martin.

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