Wimauma students on a path to college educationBerkeley Academy in Tampa

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On a brisk Saturday morning in November, 16 students from the RCMA Academy, a K-8 charter school for migrant and low-income families in Wimauma, exit their yellow school bus onto the campus of one of the most exclusive private schools in Tampa Bay. Hugs and hellos from the faculty and classmates greet them, then a louder welcome through the “cheer tunnel” with applause and high-fives from the young teachers they will have for the day. 

The kids, all sixth-graders, are part of the first cohort in a free six-year pre-college program launched this summer, called the Berkeley Academy. Designed and run by the Berkeley Preparatory School, a private K-12 located in the Town’N’Country neighborhood of Tampa, the program is geared toward college prep and enrichment, though the end goal, according to Berkeley Academy Director, Kim Lawless, is “to have each child reach their unique potential.” 

“We are mission-driven to provide an experience that will strengthen character, promote intellectual curiosity and a lifelong love of learning, and foster collaboration, respect, kindness and community service,” says Berkeley’s Headmaster Joseph Seivold who says his belief in the power and value of service inspired him to build this program at his school. 

“I hope our Berkeley Academy kids, like our Berkeley Prep students, emerge from their Berkeley experience enriched in all of those ways.”  

In addition to the Wimauma students, the program draws from middle schools near Berkeley -- Webb and Pierce middle schools -- for a total of 40 Berkeley Academy “scholars” as the students are called. All of the classes take place on Berkeley Prep’s beautifully landscaped 86-acre campus. 

Bridging the gap 

For the first three years, the bulk of the Berkeley Academy program is the summer portion -- six weeks of intensive eight-hour daily academics and enrichment -- which aims to curtail summer learning loss. And for good reason.  

According to the National Summer Learning Association (no affiliation to the Berkeley program), students lose 20 percent of their academic growth in summer months, but for children from migrant and low-income families the fallout is much more pronounced. By fifth grade, they will have fallen almost three years behind their higher-income peers.  

The organization’s Founder Matthew Boulay says that research shows there are several factors that often play into this summer slide for low-income children including lack of access to books, supervision and meals provided by schools during the school year as well as simply the lack of intellectual stimulus and opportunity for informal learning through travel or summer camps that are the norm for higher-income peers. 

Boulay says that programs like the Berkeley Academy “are really important, because the learning loss that happens over the summer is a cumulative loss and it happens over and over.”

Mark Haggett, Principal of Wimauma’s RCMA Academy for 15 years says serving his students -- all from migrant and low-income families -- means bridging the gap in even more ways. He and his team of educators are constantly looking to enhance not just their student’s academic learning, but their experiential learning, which tends to be extremely limited in their small community. 

“We try to give our kids additional background knowledge -- they get very little of that. They already have a word gap, not having had typical middle class experiences -- like just going to the beach, the zoo. We offer field trips to every class, every year,” says Haggett, adding that they strive to give students access to what everyone else has. “Poverty shouldn’t limit them. That is my goal.” 

RCMA also provides its students summer and afterschool programs, but Haggett is thrilled about the unique opportunities Berkeley Academy is giving his students, which address these gaps in different ways. As an example, he cites a recent field trip to Burger Monger, where Berkeley scholars were able to tour the facility, enjoy the food and learn from the owner about running the business and operations. 

“This is just hugely ambitious and generous on Berkeley’s part,” says Haggett. 

Scholars look forward to Saturday school

After breakfast in the Berkeley cafeteria, the Saturday sessions kick off with a high-energy group meeting in which the kids sing a clever Berkeley Academy song -- to the tune of Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk! Announcements are made and a funny college info skit (new each session) is performed by Berkeley Prep upperclassmen. More cheers all around, some interactive games and then the group breaks off for the different classes.

Lawless, the group’s champion-in-chief, has a ton of energy, a voice that carries and a specific and encouraging personal comment for every student who crosses her path, along with a hug.  

The students are entirely engaged and responsive, even in this rally-like forum, and then later, too, as they move off to their classes for the day. Subjects currently include such things as speech, creative writing, Latin, physics and art. The mood in the classes is focused, but fun, too -- discussions of Zombie Apocalypses in creative writing, silly tongue twister warm-ups in speech -- though, perhaps a little more serious in the pendulum lab in physics.

The Saturday session ends with a group activity, such as Capture the Flag.   

Continuing full circle

Getting into Berkeley Academy is competitive. Applicants must fill out an application, write an essay, be interviewed by two Berkeley faculty. Lawless says that a child’s level of motivation and “willingness to make that six-year commitment” is part of the selection criteria.  

The Wimauma kids interviewed for this article all recognized their good fortune in being able to participate and know the experience will help them in their futures, which they are already thinking about. 

“It’s a good chance for me to get to college,” notes 12-year-old Armando. “I want to study medicine,” says Melissa, 12, and adds that the teachers at Berkeley Academy are “amazing.”

One Wimauma scholar, Jonathan, also 12, says he plans to study space science, and then launches into an explanation of the different phases of the sun, black holes and white dwarfs. He has physics later that morning.  

Another scholar, Eiban says, “I just participate to learn things.” This past summer he learned to swim and had the experience of performing on stage in front of 200 people. 

The scholars are expected to bring their knowledge back to RCMA Academy and share it with their peers, in effect, creating another layer of experience – of leadership, of teaching – that a student would not otherwise gain. 

“It's fun to teach the kids back at school,” says Armando, who says his favorite subjects at the Academy are speech and algebra. 

But the experience goes both ways.  

“It’s the old cliché: whenever you give something, you get a lot more back,” says Linda Adams who is a Board Member at Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Wimauma, and whose children -- a Berkeley student and an alum -- taught at the Berkeley Academy this summer. She says it was truly the highlight of the summer for her kids. 

In fact, the teaching roles are highly competitive too -- there are more Berkeley upperclassmen vying for the chance to teach than there are slots, according to Lawless. The student teachers are impeccably coached, both by Lawless on pedagogical techniques and strategies as well as with a Berkeley teacher on developing lesson plans. The student teachers are continuously observed and given their own encouraging feedback to improve themselves.  

Adams says the continuity is key. “Berkeley has a good prototype and an important part of it is the commitment. It is not a one-off, they are creating relationships.”

Berkeley plans to grow the program, adding 40 new sixth-graders each year, all with a six-year commitment, continuously supporting them through graduation for a capacity of 240 scholars when the program is fully operational. Wimauma students will again be able to apply.

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant for regional and global businesses. Though she has always been passionate about arts and culture, she spent many years in the tech and B2B corporate worlds both in the U.S. and abroad. With a degree in Economics and International Relations from The American University in Washington, DC, she considers politics her favorite sport and follows it avidly with as much humor as she can muster. Based in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa, Kendra is a mother and wife, a news junkie, and lover of all things creative.