WESTERLY — James Fairley and Amelia Lohnes spent Tuesday morning with about 16 peers learning about percussion, rhythm, drum dynamics and making music in a group.
The two 10-year-olds were participating in a drum circle led by instructor Donna Anderson. The activity was part of a Westerly Summer Learning Initiative field trip. Formerly known as the Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative, the program is a six-week, full-time experience that combines elements of summer school and summer camp, with an emphasis on hands-on learning and fun.
While the drum circle banged out a rhythm, another group of about 15 children was taking a guided tour of the murals that adorn various buildings in downtown Westerly and the associated harmony trail of public music instruments. Jean Gagnier, a former member of the Town Council and a volunteer with the Bricks and Murals organization that brought the murals to the town, led the tour.
Anderson led the group of 18 children through a variety of lessons on topics such as dynamics (alternating between loud and soft), beats, and ways to use bongos, djembe, an African drum, an 11-note tong drum and tambourines. Anderson is a singer and guitar player in Grace in Darkness, an Americana band, and serves on the board of the Westerly Land Trust, one of the partner organizations that is supporting the Summer Learning Initiative by providing guided hikes of several of its properties.
"I learned that there's a lot of different beats that you can get. More than I thought there would be, especially with a tambourine," Amelia said.
"It's a lot of fun," said James, who said he also enjoyed playing kickball on other days as well as a boat trip with Save the Bay. "We learned about the water and the ocean and the harm done by plastic," James said.
Based at the Louis J. Cimalore Sports Complex, the initiative also makes frequent visits to Hillandale Farm, an organic farm on Haversham Road. Max Hence, who runs the farm with his wife, Uli, was instrumental in helping to ensure the summer learning program resumed after it was interrupted last year due to COVID-19 and because its former home base, the Tower Street School Community Center, was closed by school and town officials, who later decided to sell the property.
In existence for at least seven years in Westerly, the initiative, which is offered at no cost to children who attend, has always been focused on targeting learning loss that happens in the summer months. The initiative is funded by a three-year grant of $75,000 per year from the United way of Rhode Island. The Southern Rhode Island Conservation District is serving as fiduciary agent and helping to organize and support the initiative, which this year includes a summer camp that was previously run by the municipal Recreation Department, which received the United Way grant. The conservation district also provided a counselor for the initiative. The Recreation Department and the United Way are providing staff people as well.
Opening Doors for Westerly’s Children, a non-profit organization focused on early childhood literacy and academic achievement for the town's children, helped fund a field trip and provided books for participants.
Participating educators say the pandemic has spurred an increased need for addressing both learning loss and social-emotional education.
"Research shows that students that can do multi-sensory hands-on activities, whether it be in the form of field trips or other learning activities, are slower to regress and experience skills loss. The biggest piece of this camp is the socialization and the social emotional growth for many of these kids who haven't left their homes because of the pandemic," said Rebecca Trebisacci, the initiative's education coordinator.
Trebisacci, a third-grade teacher at State Street Elementary School, said social emotional learning includes preparing children to be part of a classroom community, learning how to be a good friend, and "feeling safe and knowing you are in a place where your voice is heard without fear of being made fun."
"If the kids aren’t socially and emotionally ready then they are not ready for classroom learning," Trebisacci said.
Camille Sidoli, a teacher at Springbrook Elementary School, and Jillian Messmer, who teaches at State Street Elementary School, also work for the initiative as educators. The children engage in afternoon "fun center" lessons that the teachers design to connect to morning field trips. One child told Trebisacci that they had never seen the town's coastline.
"It shows you the diversity of the town," Trebisacci said.
Children who attend the initiative also engage in a service learning component, said Sarah Cordio, a counselor. This year's projects include creation of a comic book with an inclusion and anti-bullying theme, making toys for animals at the Stand Up For Animals shelter, and kindness posters that will be delivered to Westerly Middle School.
Science is stressed a bit more this year, Cordio said.
"It's hard to teach science for this age group over a computer screen," Cordio said.
Marlene Guay, who oversees United Way’s work on children’s development and education, including early childhood, summer, and afterschool learning, said the organization was quick to see the value of the program in Westerly because of its collaborative approach.
"All of these things were very influential in how they were able to work and have a really robust opportunity to be able to work with the kids," Guay said.
The local application to the United Way made clear the local need, Guay said.
"Traditionally in the state there is a strong assumption that communities like Westerly do not need programs like this as much as maybe some of the urban core areas, but there is definitely a need in Westerly, and this is definitely a worthwhile venture to be able to support in the community," Guay said.