Summer recipe for tots: Tennis, dash of nutrition

Cooking class: Haley House employee Vanessa Labranche assists Jonathan Delacruz (center) during the Dever summer program’s nutritional cooking class last Wednesday.  Nhu Huynh Duong (left) chops apples as Tiffany Nguyen (right) observes. Elizabeth Murray photoCooking class: Haley House employee Vanessa Labranche assists Jonathan Delacruz (center) during the Dever summer program’s nutritional cooking class last Wednesday. Nhu Huynh Duong (left) chops apples as Tiffany Nguyen (right) observes. Elizabeth Murray photoAbout a dozen fourth graders filed anxiously into the room used as both a gym and cafeteria last Wednesday at the Paul A. Dever School where mats, bowls and food had been set out on tables in preparation for a nutritional cooking class. As the students chatted excitedly about the previous week’s burritos and smoothies, Haley House Cafe chef Vanessa Labranche introduced different fruits and vegetables before the students’ next endeavor – fruit with gingerbread dip and hummus ‘boats’ with vegetables.

One student even brought her own apron to school for the activity.

For this five-week summer program, the Dever School partnered with ‘Tenacity’, a Boston-based non-profit organization dedicated to helping city kids develop skills, build character and find pathways to excellence by playing tennis and engaging in academics over summer break.

The Dever School is one of 40 Boston Public Schools partnering with community groups like Tenacity during the summer. These partnerships are facilitated by Boston After School and Beyond, a public-private partnership dedicated to supporting, strengthening and expanding Boston’s after-school sector.

There are about 23 fourth graders participating in the summer program at the Dever School. These students are chosen from the middle of the academic spectrum, said Melissa Partridge, a Special Assistant in the Office of Innovation, Partnership and Development for the BPS. The school’s principal works with the school district and Boston After School in Beyond to find the students who would most benefit from the program.

“We really try to find the students that are kind of in the middle of the pack that could either slip, or with some attention, be helped, and [with] continuation of academics through the summer may even progress,” Partridge said. “There’s such a gaping hole for the kids in the middle, so we find that this type of program really works with the integration of the experience and the academics.”

David McAuley, the project manager for Boston After School and Beyond, said Tenacity had already been involved with the Dever School and its upper school, the McCormack Middle School, so he just needed to bring the partnership to the next level.

“It’s almost like a pipeline for the students,” McAuley said. “These [students] are going into the fourth grade, they’re going to work with Tenacity during the school year, and then as they go into middle school, they’ll also have Tenacity there to support them too.”

Ned Eames, the president and founder of Tenacity, is excited about the partnership with the Dever and McCormack schools since the students can now start early on a pathway Tenacity has fostered from elementary and middle school to college. Eames said Tenacity has a very intensive middle school academy that supports the journey to high school and beyond. The program has made it a goal for 75 percent of the students involved in the pathway to complete post-secondary pursuit.

“We can come into the school and provide resources in the form of programs that are valuable to the school, valuable to the students, are in line with the learning goals of the schools, and are programs that the school is not able to provide themselves,” Eames said.

Site Director Geoff Rose said the focus is on fourth graders for this summer program since the program is funded in part by the Wallace Foundation, which is conducting a national study to gauge summer learning loss in fourth graders. The BPS was one of six school districts chosen for this study by the foundation. This is the second year the summer program has been running, and Rose said an ‘ACT’ (achieve, connect, thrive) philosophy is a central component.

“Our whole mindset of this program is to try to get the kids actively thinking and actively working,” Rose said. “Our big question that we’re trying to push forward throughout the whole summer is ‘How does what you do with your body affect your brain?’”

On four of the five Wednesdays, two groups of about a dozen fourth graders are spending two weeks each learning how to cook nutritious snacks. The group who does not spend the afternoon cooking learns how to play games and sports outside. Tenacity recruited Roxbury’s Haley House Cafe’s program ‘Take Back the Kitchen’ (TBK) to help with the cooking projects.

TBK Program Manager Robin Saunders said the mission of the program, which has been around for seven years and has worked with Tenacity in the past, is to educate youth and their families about healthy eating and cooking options and introduce sustainable food systems. This is the first year it has worked with the Dever School.

“It’s just like a perfect match,” Saunders said. “We love the younger aged kids . . . They’re very eager.”
Saunders said her favorite thing about working with the Dever students is their honesty and curiosity, but the most challenging thing is the amount of energy kids that age have – “unlimited energy” according to Saunders. She said the menu is chosen by what foods the chefs see are in season and what they think may be interesting for the kids.

“We have hundreds of recipes that we’ve used over the years that we have, so I think just something that’s fun and engages kids,” Saunders said.

Nine-year-old Myrical Bone, a Dever student, said she uses the cooking skills learned at school when she goes home.

“You get to cook, play games and you get to learn more so you can be ready for the next grade,” Bone said.

Fellow classmate Raine Cooper, 9, dubbed the ‘Emeril Lagasse’ of the previous week’s burrito cooking class by Rose, said he feels more prepared for the school year because of the program’s focus on English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. Still, his favorite summer activities are outside the classroom.
“The reason why I like it is because it gets me energized. . . and I learn how to play new [sports],” Cooper said.

The program focuses on academics in the morning, using an ELA and Math curriculum adopted from the Wallace Foundation. The students also take field trips to different Boston sites and learn physical fitness activities during the afternoon.

“The ELA program that was chosen? Rave reviews,” Partridge said. “To the point that teachers are begging for the district to adopt it as a district-wide program. . . It’s been this really cool five-week incubator to try out some of these things that you don’t get to do necessarily.”

The academics component is taught by Dever teachers, one of whom will be teaching some of the students in the fourth grade in the fall. Partridge said the teachers elected to do the summer program are very passionate about their jobs and supportive of the students’ learning.

According to Rose, this helps foster good student-teacher and teacher-parent relationships even before the school year begins. Many behavioral issues are also addressed during the summer, as Rose said the students are constantly working on developing patience and self-control skills.

“As we’ve seen, they’re turning 10, but they’re throwing temper tantrums of two-year-olds,” Rose said.
Rose said he loves the philosophy of the program. As a whole, he regards it as a great opportunity for the students as the wellness of the whole student is addressed, not just the academic wellness.

“It’s been a great collaborative effort,” Rose said. “I’ve been impressed with Boston’s getting a bunch of different partners on board. One of the best things of this program is giving these kids opportunities they wouldn’t normally get.”