Urbana offers summer academy for incoming freshmen

URBANA — High school can be a scary place when you're an incoming freshmen, but some Urbana students are getting a head start.

School doesn't start for another few weeks at Urbana High School, but about 35 soon-to-be-freshmen are participating in the Summer Leadership Academy at the school.

The students are taking writing workshops, a refresher on algebra, book studies, arts exposure and an orientation to the high school, among others.

And, as a reward for attending classes Monday through Wednesday, the academy takes a Thursday field trip. Students have been to Knights Action Water Park, cultural houses and the Illini Union on the University of Illinois campus, and Thursday, they'll go to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Co-coordinator Tom Neal, who teaches foreign languages during the school year at UHS, said the idea for the program came about when organizers realized that freshman orientation isn't enough.

The high school staff wanted another way to welcome incoming freshmen, so it decided to create the leadership academy.

The academy is an extension of a program that happens during the school year and is paid for through a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the state board of education, Neal said.

Organizers asked incoming freshmen to apply, and all who did were accepted.

The academy gives students a chance to get to know some of the high school's teachers, and brush up on things like algebra, reading and writing before school starts.

"They'll feel like they've already been here," Neal said, and the teachers are happy to work with them during the summer.

The academy started July 16, and Thursday is its last day. The students attend from 9 a.m. to noon.

Erin Ludwick, who teaches English and journalism during the school year, has taught three classes for the summer academy: community service and social justice leadership, food and nutrition, and video editing and blogging.

Ludwick said she's tried to emphasize how students can embrace their community in her classes. For instance, in the community service class, she had students picking up garbage on school grounds and helping custodians around the school.

In her video editing class Monday morning, she had her students thinking about addressing a problem that needs to be fixed.

She told them they could write a play or drama for a video, or even just make a statement about their opinion about a certain topic.

She said she and interim UHS Principal Joe Wiemelt discussed together how important it is for students to research a topic and then take action.

Wiemelt said staff members at the high school are looking for ways for students to take more leadership roles, and Ludwick's class is a way to reach students early.

"At the high school and across the district, we're really exploring more ways to have students take ownership over their learning," Wiemelt said, even beyond academics. "We want them to understand the importance of service learning."

Tierra Williams, who's attending the summer academy, said she signed up after hearing some of her friends would be attending, and said she needed something to do this summer.

She specifically wanted to take the algebra class offered, because she plans to take Advance Placement-prep Algebra II next year.

She sat in a computer lab for the video editing class with Inece Hunt, who decided it sounded fun when her mom mentioned it.

She said she's learned new things, like what "utopia" and "dystopia" mean, as well as her way around the school, and has especially enjoyed Ludwick's classes, even though attending means getting up early during the summer.

It helps to know where things are, she said, "but I'm a little scared," Hunt said.

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