SPRINGFIELD — The start of a new school year is just days away and children — ranging in age from 5 to 12 — enrolled in a Square One program aimed at preventing summer learning losses are confident and raring to start.

During a wrap-up celebration session of the summer program, held last week at the Christian Life Center on Sumner Avenue, the children sat at the feet of singer-storyteller Mary Jo Maichack who reminded them a new school year was about to begin.

"Finally!" shouted one of the students sitting on the floor in front of Maichack.

Then, under Maichack's direction, the groups of children took turns singing, dancing and reciting complicated rhymes they'd learned during their summer vacation for an audience of family, friends and teachers.

The show was a culmination of the school-age children's completion of a rigorous curriculum of academics, literacy, wellness and social and emotional programming, according to Linda Lastowski, Square One's school-age program director.

Lastkowski noted that Square One's after-school program continues throughout the school year.

At the start of the summer program, Lastkowski said teachers screen the children on literacy skills including vocabulary and reading comprehension and then assess their progress at the end of the program. While this year's results are pending, Lastkowski said the program has shown marked improvement from the start to the finish of the program last year.

Lastkowski said social and emotional skills are very important for success. "If they have those, it boosts their self-esteem and learning," she said.

"Literacy is not just about reading."
— Linda Lastowski

"Literacy is not just about reading," Lastkowski said, noting that art, music and drama are part of the process of building strong readers.

Six-year-old Tamia Willis was eager to show visitors the student artwork in one of the classrooms, explaining posters on display. "I liked storytelling the best," she said.

The program's fun learning environment was infectious during the wrap-up program as children recited "The House that Jack Built" and danced to the hokey pokey.

Funds for staffing and family literacy curriculum came from a $100,000 MassMutual grant supported with book donations from Link to Libraries.

The "creative minds" curriculum encourages children to tell teachers "what they know, what they want to know and what they learned," Lastowski said.

The program was built on research that high-quality early learning and care is particularly important for children and families who are faced with significant challenges including homelessness, poverty, food insecurity, domestic violence and other issues," according to Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One.

"The children in our school-age programs have all been faced with the kinds of challenges that put them at high risk," Kagan said.

According to the Children's Aid Society, most students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, while their middle-class peers make slight gains.

When this pattern continues throughout the elementary school years, lower-income youth fall more than 2.5 years behind their more affluent peers by the end of fifth grade. Studies by the same organization show that most children — particularly children at high risk of obesity — gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break, according to the group.

Square One provides early education from a variety of sites throughout the city and region.

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