URBANA – For students in Urbana's Sankofa Connections program, "no more teachers, no more books" is no more the mantra of summer vacation.
These kids are working hard, learning math, reading, writing and social skills – and, for the most part, they wouldn't trade the experience, even for more traditional summer fun.
The program began in 2002 when five parents decided their children could use a little extra help over the summer. Those parents – including current Urbana parent-community liaison Janice Mitchell – enlisted longtime Urbana Middle School math teacher Carolyn Jenkins, who met with the kids three days a week at the Urbana Free Library.
Since then, the landscape – and the student population – has changed dramatically.
The seven-week program is now part of the Urbana public school district, led by Mitchell. Sankofa includes about 80 students from first through eighth grades, taught by certified teachers and community volunteers.
The program's name, Sankofa, is an African word for a bird that looks to the past while going forward.
"You're looking back on what you did in elementary, and you're looking forward to middle school," said Deandre Carter-Sanders, 11.
The future middle-schooler participates in Sankofa's Urbana Middle School morning program, aimed at helping sixth-graders move from the elementaries to the middle school. The program targets black and Hispanic students of varying academic abilities. Most were referred to the program by teachers or principals.
"What they really think about is those students who might need help" making the move, Mitchell said. "We talk about the hallway expectations. We talk about the entering-the-classroom expectations."
Moving from elementary to middle school is one of the key transitions students will make, Mitchell said, with a new school, new students and new hormones, to boot.
The move can be nerve-wracking, say some students.
"You've got to remember the number of your locker, where to go, where are your classes," said Jesus Olmedo, 11. "Some of the challenges are kind of hard, some are easy."
Another goal, Mitchell said, is to help close the racial achievement gap.
Sankofa teachers work with sixth-grade teachers to make sure what they're teaching is consistent with grade-level skills and middle school standards, ideally giving those students a greater comfort level when they start classes in the fall.
The students change classrooms and teachers with each new class. In Jenkins' second math class on Monday morning, she teaches her 14 pupils about fractions.
After each student gives an answer, Jenkins asks that student for his or her thought process.
"That lets me know that your math ability has increased," she tells them. "It does not matter how you do it as long as you can explain how you do it."
Rashawnda Brown, 11, wants to attend Princeton University and become a professional writer, she said, so she needs to hone her academics early.
"I'm glad I'm in it, to spend my time wisely," she said. "I'm just trying to be a success."
An afternoon session for first- through eighth-graders at King and Prairie elementary schools alternates academics with recreation, making sure students don't forget their learning and behavioral skills.
"At the elementary level, if they don't quite grasp everything that they need, then the chances of them succeeding are slimmer," Mitchell said.
Susan Jackson-Rogers enrolled her son, Jalen Micah Rogers, 10, in Sankofa last year and found the experience so rewarding that she signed him up again this summer.
"They always find a way to educate the kids even without their knowing it," Jackson-Rogers said.
Beyond academics, "it just gives them opportunities to maintain their social skills, build new ones," she said. "We can both be happy about him being here."