Young Students Take Leaps and Bounds Toward Better Education
by Alex Obregon
That quote came from 11-year-old Nathaniel Gillespie, a participant in the college's new "Leaps and Bounds" program. Leaps and Bounds is one of several local human services and educational endeavors benefiting this summer from the volunteer efforts of 14 Davidson College students enrolled in the AmeriCorps Leaders Program.
Now in its third year, the AmeriCorps Leaders program is a community service initiative designed by the college and the Bonner Foundation in partnership with the federal Corporation for National Service. Student participants are trained and supported to work in community agencies that target education and human needs. For their efforts, the students receive $781 of educational assistance, and are provided housing by the college. They share their experiences and talk about local and national human development issues at weekly meetings, following a friendly, ice-breaking round of charades or water balloon toss.
In addition to Leaps and Bounds, this summer's AmeriCorps students are working full-time with Habitat for Humanity, the Boys and Girls Club, the town's Parks and Recreation Department, the Lake Norman YMCA, the Davidson Housing Coalition, and the Ada Jenkins Community Center. They are also undertaking a group project, staffing the computer lab at Ada Jenkins Center three nights a week to increase its availability to the public.
Unlike the other programs, though, Leaps and Bounds is an independent effort envisioned, created, and managed entirely by Davidson students. Directing its inaugural session are two AmeriCorps volunteers, rising junior Cody Ruxton and rising sophomore Isah Ahsan.
It was rising senior Liz Neiheisel who envisioned the program several years ago, based on her participation in a Norfolk, Va., educational enrichment program in which she participated. Her goal was to develop a program run entirely by students that would provide middle-achieving children unique academic experiences, diverse social interaction, and community service. By focusing on students who are often overlooked by teachers because they neither excel nor struggle academically, Leaps and Bounds hopes to motivate them to take greater ownership of their education and become leaders in their schools and communities.
Neiheisel eventually received a $10,000 "Sunbeam" grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation to fund her idea, then recruited fellow Bonner Service Scholar Cody Ruxton to help develop it. Neiheisel and Ruxton spent last summer writing an 18-page program manual, including a mission statement, curriculum ideas, applications, and a schedule.
Neiheisel spent last academic year studying abroad, and entrusted the program to Ruxton and Ahsan. With support from the college's education department and community service program, those two students led Leaps and Bounds to open for its first four-week session on campus on June 26.
"I was giddy to actually see students running out of cars on the first day," said Ruxton. "One child asked, 'Why are you doing this?' and we said, 'We just wanted to give you something to do over the summer.' He was completely flabbergasted."
Thanks to the Sunbeam grant, Leaps and Bounds is tuition-free for students. They represent a wide range of socio-economic levels and ethnic groups, and were nominated by their fifth grade teachers.
The program also provides housing and a $1,000 stipend for three student-teachers—recent graduate Jenny Lyon and rising sophomores Adam Roark and Eugenia Hall. Their highly interactive curriculum supports the motto: "Tell me and I'll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I'll understand."
The three teachers designed non-traditional classes in math, English, science, and social studies. Among the learning activities are marshmallow molecule building in science class, and reenacting the invasion of the British Isles in history. College faculty members and members of the Davidson community also contribute their talents in special weekly workshops and presentations.
"Classes are definitely different than regular school," said 11-year-old Sarah Sullivan. "They're a lot more fun."
The program will invite students back every summer until they reach ninth grade. Once in full swing in summer 2002, it will support three classes totaling about 45 students. Though the program is brand new, it has already attracted attention in the service community. Recently, Ahsan spoke about Leaps and Bounds at a Bonner Foundation conference, where students from DePaw University in Indiana expressed interest in establishing their own chapter.
In addition to the students involved with Leaps and Bounds, other AmeriCorps participants working with agencies in Davidson are Katie Bond, Aravind Dileepan, Nicole Foreman, Jenny Hobby, Sherry Leverett, Aaron Lohmeyer, Susan Myers, Jenn Ringsmuth, Britton Shurley, Lucas Spivey, and Trip Young.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by "U.S. News and World Report" magazine.