If you drive by the brick schoolhouse in the city’s north end with the red door any weekday, it appears unoccupied save for perhaps a couple cars parked in the lot. Not unusual, after all, it is the dead of summer, and school’s not back in session until after Labor Day.
But peek inside and you’ll find 42 students into four air-conditioned rooms, quietly being tutored in small groups.
This is no mere summer school — it’s an entirely new sort of academic enrichment and it’s run entirely by volunteers.
For the second year, the Middletown Board of Education did not fund summer school in the district, placing Macdonough school educators in the same situation as last year. But again, they chose to make up for that loss with old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity.
“Every morning, for five weeks, from July to early August, students going into kindergarten through fourth grade,” says Principal Jon Romeo, are dropped off by parents from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. “All of our teachers are volunteering ... some are here for a day, some are here for a few days. They've worked around vacations, other summer jobs, graduate courses, even weddings [two teachers are getting married this summer].”
Even teachers who formerly worked at Macdonough return in the summer to help for a day. “Including student teachers,” Romeo, a Glastonbury resident, says. “It’s definitely a community effort.”
Today, Romeo is doing double duty, also filling in as a math teacher for one who couldn’t make it.
The many community volunteers include students from Middletown High School's Future Teachers of America and Young Educators Society programs, the and the Family Resource Center.
Children are taught four subjects every weekday — math, reading, library and composition — and rotate every 30 minutes. Fridays are field trips, like visiting the North End Farmers Market.
Students are not here because they failed a grade and won’t advance otherwise, which is the traditional concept of summer school.
“It’s for kids not spending the summer [going on trips like to] Disney World or to summer camp,” Romeo says. “We certainly target kids who need academic help but it’s open to anyone.”
The city and Middletown Commission on the Arts, in conjunction with Oddfellows Playhouse, run a circus camp afternoons outdoors at Macdonough that coincides with the dates of this summer school program. Many of the children participating don’t have a place to go in the mornings.
Their parents are working and they can’t necessarily afford childcare. Many would be in the care of an older sibling or relative and may not eat nutritious meals or keep their minds active.
This is also the second year that fourth-grade teacher Sarah Claffey, of Moodus, helped out. “Some of these kids don’t have a safe environment at home,” she says. “And the program feeds them breakfast and lunch,” through the .
There are so many reasons Claffey volunteers. “They asked us if we wanted to do one day, but I tend to want to do more.”
She was part of the team that recruited volunteers for this summer. “I go in anyway in the summer, what’s one or two more days,” she asks. “I love those kids. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”
Contrary to what most kids feel at the very end of the school year, they soon begin to miss friends and become eager to return to classes in the fall.
Claffey says familiar faces are comforting.
“Kids like seeing their teacher from during the year. It keeps them motivated — because who really wants to be at summer school? There is an academic portion but there’s also a fun portion.”
It also helps with anxiety about returning to school in a higher grade and with new peers and a teacher. Little ones might see the teacher they’ll have in the fall and that will quell any nervousness.
Today in the computer lab, several small groups of kids pencil answers in on math worksheets or are seated at computers, getting one-on-one help from tutors.
Israel is going into fifth grade. After this, he’s on to circus camp for the afternoon, where he’s learning to juggle. His favorite trick is the diabolo, which is a rubber spool that’s tossed on a string tied to two sticks held in each hand.
He’s lying on a colorful rug in the computer lab, alongside Kelvin, another rising fifth-grader, and they’re working on a fourth-grade math worksheet, talking quietly.
“We definitely believe it’s important to learn — math and literacy — but for us it’s beyond that,” says Romeo, speaking softly.
Longtime second-grade teacher Joanne Jukins echoes the sentiment. “We do it because it's a win-win situation for our school. Teachers volunteer one day a summer and get the chance to build relationships with upcoming students and students don't lose critical math/reading skills due to ‘summer slide,’” she says.
Not one of these teachers is being paid. But that point is entirely moot.
“Personally, I love staying involved with the kids over the summer and they love seeing their ‘old’ teachers and meeting different teachers,” Jukins says. “I teach math and will be pulling out all my dice and cards and games and challenging students of all ages with place value games. They get so excited to play and, of course, love to beat me!”
No one is volunteering to make a point or even to make a case for funding summer school next year. They’re doing it for the children.
“It's a whole school community effort and parents and community members volunteer as well,” Jukins says. “Regardless of budgets, we all are of the opinion that we will do what needs to be done for our kids/families.”
Third-graders working with a volunteer from the North End Action Team are sitting quietly in the first-floor library, selecting books to read and share that reinforce Macdonough’s SURFS Up behavioral values of self-responsibility, understanding, respect, fairness and safety.
Downstairs in the basement, kindergarteners are here for a full day — they stay until 3 p.m. — and dozen or so are playing dress up and goofing off on the tiny indoor playscape. Next, they’ll work on their reading skills.
“The first day for kindergartners is not going to be as difficult. This is their school. Come September, they’ll know the classrooms and the teachers,” Romeo says.