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  • Writer's pictureJoseph F. Berenato

Summer school program held at former St. Joe

Gloucester County Special Services School District Migrant Education Summer School Program Director Billie Thomas stands with several students in the program during one of their kickball games. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

From now through July 23, the former St. Joseph Regional Elementary School building is host to the Gloucester County Special Services School District Migrant Education Summer School Program.

“We’re excited, because we understand that there is a long and rich history with the school, and we’re happy to be there. We’re ecstatic to be there,” said Billie Thomas, the program’s director.

This is the first time the program is being held at that school. Thomas said that, previously, the program was housed at Warren E. Sooy Elementary School, and, prior to that, in Hammonton High School and in schools in Sicklerville.

Camp Director Keith Shepherd and Program Director Billie Thomas took a moment together on the playground. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

Susan Davidow, the director of marketing for St. Mary of Mt. Carmel Parish, said that, previously, the program had to bus the children “all day long to go here and there.”

“They were excited to come here because of that, because we have the playground, we have the gym and we have the cafeteria. They don’t have to go anywhere. They’re here from early morning to late at night. It’s working out really well,” Davidow said.

The Rev. David Rivera talked with Intervention Specialist Dalaine Wilson. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

The Rev. David Rivera, the pastor of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel Parish, said that they were approached by the program because “they wanted a different building.”

“Because it was for five weeks, it’s something that was a little more manageable for us,” Rivera said.

Davidow explained further, noting that she received “a phone call out of the clear blue sky.”

“I don’t know how they got my name—I never asked—but I picked the phone and it was Billie Thomas. She introduced herself, told me about her program, sent me an email about it and was very interested in renting out the whole school. As great as that sounded, I couldn’t rent the whole school because we have other programs and people in here—including myself—but it worked out well, because the school is so large that they have all the upper floors,” Davidow said.

Davidow noted that the scheduling is a perfect fit for the other activities at the school building.

“We have the preschool camp—which is downstairs in the preschool area, so they’re not even bothering that—and Lori ScottoDiVetta, who runs the CCD camp, her program doesn’t start until July 19, which is the start of the migrant program’s last week. Most of the migrant workers are in full force right now, and we have the most students right now. Toward the end of the five-week program, it’ll whittle down because the migrant workers start to move on. By the last week, they probably won’t use as many classrooms as they are right now, so Lori doesn’t have to worry about it—because she’ll probably use eight classrooms, one for each grade,” Davidow said.

Counselor Joseph Jacob talked to students in the Migrant Education Summer School Program. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

Stefanie VanderMeer, the program manager of special projects for the Gloucester County Special Services School District, said that the Migrant Education Program “has been around for decades.”

“We provide supplemental education services for children of migrant farm workers year-round, but we also provide the summer school program. We provide one program in Hammonton and another in Bridgeton. The Hammonton summer school began on June 21, and it will go until Friday, July 23. We are closed on July 5 and July 16,” VanderMeer said.

VanderMeer offered a brief overview of the program.

“For summer school, it is the education piece in the morning. They come in at 8 a.m. or so and have breakfast. They have education all morning, and we do math and English/language arts. There’s also a computer component, they might do art, they have lunch ... The education aspect ends around 2:30 p.m., then the camp begins. We’re still at the school, and they’re outside doing all kinds of camp activities—and that’s the fun part. We serve them breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then, they get on the bus to go home around 5 p.m.,” VanderMeer said.

Students worked diligently in Johadane Pierre-Davis’s class. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

VanderMeer noted the importance of the program for both the children and their families.

“We pick them up at the blueberry farms ... We need to get the kids off the farms so mom and dad can pick and do what they need to do. We educate the kids, and this year has been lost, I’m sure, education-wise, with all the remote learning so the kids need it now more than ever. It’s a program that we have such a heart for, because these are good families with good kids. We want to make them better citizens,” VanderMeer said.

Thomas said that the children receive instructional support because, as a result of “the highly mobile nature of their family’s work, there are, at times, educational interruptions.”

“The research speaks to the challenges as a result of these barriers that the children have. What the Migrant Education Program was designed to do is ensure that, despite any frequent movement, children have the opportunity to enroll in and attend school successfully, and have their supplemental instructional and supportive needs met ... We complete an Individual Needs Assessment for each child that’s enrolled into the program. We get information from their parents or guardians and any school personnel as to what their individual needs are. Then, we work with our team and other partner agencies and organizations to ensure that those needs are met,” Thomas said.

Students in the Migrant Education Summer School Program enjoyed a snack before beginning the camp portion of their day. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

Thomas said that other services are offered besides instructional tutoring.

“We make referrals for counseling services, we provide transportation, we provide a summer camp program and enrichment activities like field trips. Our children are eligible for free lunch; they’re categorically eligible just by virtue of being children of migrant farm workers,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that the program includes children as young as Pre-K age.

“The youngest would be 3 at our site, and we have children all the way through 11th grade that are attending the summer program. You’re eligible from birth to 22, as long as they have not had their 22nd birthday and have not graduated from high school. Our aim is to ensure that children have the opportunity to graduate,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that their program works with the student’s sending states to help evaluate educational placement.

“There is a national data system—it’s called the Migrant Student Information Exchange—which permits us to receive information regarding what a student has completed and where they are in regards to their coursework, so that, when they travel to the various states, there is no question as to where they should be placed ... We try to connect all the dots, and make certain that we’re capturing what their needs are, in addition to connecting them to valuable resources and support,” Thomas said.

The Migrant Education Program, Thomas said, is “100 percent federally funded through the state agency.”

“The state is actually the grantee, and the states issue a notice of grant opportunity for school districts to apply to provide this service and implement the program. It’s on a five-year cycle; every five years there is a notice of grant opportunity that is issued out of the New Jersey Department of Education. School districts apply. Over the years, we’ve exhibited an organizational commitment and capacity to serving this highly unique and specialized population. We’ve been successful in being awarded for a couple of decades,” Thomas said.

Intervention Specialist Vince DeLuca (right) led students in a game of kickball. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

Regarding the use of the former St. Joseph Regional Elementary School, Thomas said that Rivera and Davidow “have been nothing short of very welcoming and supportive of our program, and the children and their families.”

“We had hosted our parent advisory council meeting there; it’s a federal requirement for us to have a parent advisory council to ensure that there is parental influence and input as to the design and implementation and service delivery of the program. They opened their doors to us to host the meeting, and we were very excited about that because it gave the parents an opportunity to see exactly where their children were going to be this summer,” Thomas said.

Rivera also noted his excitement for the program to be at the school.

“It’s nice to have people using the building and to see children there. These are very vulnerable children; they’re the children of migrant workers, and without this program their educational needs aren’t met. They often don’t have a chance to go to school normally like other kids, so it’s a very important service ... They’re very nice people, and we’re working very well together,” Rivera said.


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