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Head Start—Baylor Academic Camps Teach Skills, Promote Higher Education

By Daniel Houston

Baylor is offering a series of academic camps this summer for gifted and talented students to foster creativity and problem-solving, while encouraging them to eventually pursue a college education.

Baylor’s University for Young People (UYP) features diverse academic programs — including book clubs, robotics projects, philosophy, painting and cooking classes, among others — for students Grades 4-12, and creative projects for younger students.

“We call it an ‘enrichment’ program, because we’re not taking on the school’s responsibility,” said Dr. Mary McMullen Witte ’78, director of the university’s Center for Community Learning and Enrichment. “This is something that lets the gifted and talented students build on their strengths and pursue things they’re interested in.”

The two-week courses, however, are about more than building skills and stimulating creativity; for the students, many of whom come from low-income families, UYP offers them their first exposure to a university campus.

“It gets them to be very comfortable on a college campus,” Witte said. “Many of them live right here in Waco, they’ve never been to Baylor, and their parents haven’t been here. So it also gets them to see that they can aspire to higher education.”

May graduate and UYP lead-mentor Rachel Lieber has been working on the administrative side of the summer camps for the past four years. During that time, she has formed relationships with a group of students who participate in “Project Promise,” a federal grant program that pays for Waco students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to attend UYP.

Lieber said the students of Project Promise are highly driven to succeed and understand that if they want to become doctors, lawyers, or other skilled professionals, they need to work toward higher education.

“Even though they come from backgrounds different from mine, or less fortunate, they still want to come to college,” Lieber said. “They don’t see it as an ‘if-maybe.’ They see it as, ‘I need to work as hard as I can because I don’t see another option for myself.’”

One such former Project Promise student is Catelia Romero. Romero credits her experience at UYP for her ability to attend Baylor, where she is currently a senior, and ultimately work on the UYP staff. She remembers the camps as being both fun and good preparation for college.

“I loved it,” Romero said. “I wanted to come every year. If it could be all summer long, it would have been even better. You felt really comfortable here, so college didn’t seem so far off.”

The camps are broken down into two sessions: one June 4-15 and another June 18-29. The first session includes a program named “Structures” for Grades 1-4, in which students construct a hypothetical city with its own political, financial, and social institutions to account for problems that might arise in society.

Witte said the structures program gives students an introduction to real-world problems and the opportunity to sharpen their analytic skills.

“It’s teaching children how to solve problems,” Witte said, “because they have to do divergent thinking — creative — and then they have to do convergent [thinking], which is drawing conclusions. That’s the kind of people we need in the future: problem-solvers. So it’s teaching them … how do you take a big mess and untangle it?”

Once the students decide what they want they want their city to look like — whether it will have a democratic state, the nature of its banks and other institutions, and other similar decisions — the students construct their city out of cereal boxes. The final product is presented to their parents at the end of the camp.

Following the conclusion of Structures, Grades 1-4 are participating in the “Perspectives” program in UYP’s second summer session. This program encourages the students to analyze the gardens of Woodway Elementary’s outdoor learning environment from the perspective of various disciplines, from etymology to art.

For more information about the camps, as well as the Center for Community Learning and Enrichment, visit their website.

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