STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

How do you engage kids in learning over the summer? Pay them.

Terry Gaule is overseeing a rocket mission.

His team: a classroom full of 14 and 15 year old kids from Grand Rapids.

The mission: to build balloon-powered, Styrofoam rocket carts that will shoot across the floor.

The ultimate goal: learn the laws of the universe.

"The rocket is going to demonstrate Newton’s Third Law of Motion," says Gaule. "For every force, there’s another force that’s equal in magnitude but opposite in direction."  

Newton’s Third Law. Action, reaction.

This class itself, this whole summer program, is a reaction. A reaction to a big problem - the problem that kids from low-income families tend to do worse in school than kids from families with more money. The achievement gap problem.

And one of the biggest parts of that problem is that it gets worse in the summer time, as middle class and upper class families pay to send their kids to summer programs, and families with less money don’t

"If they are not engaged in any type of activity or academic enrichment, they lose a lot of the stuff," says Mario Alfaro, with the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, and the “stuff” he’s talking about that kids lose is basically the stuff they learned the previous year in school. To help them keep the “stuff,” the Hispanic Center runs this summer program, which is part of the Believe 2 Become initiative in Grand Rapids.

And Alfaro says it wasn’t enough to make the program free. He says especially in the Hispanic community, kids in the summer aren’t just sitting around. They’re looking to make money.

"Even though that they might be needing summer school, they were, 'Well, I need to help my mom, help my dad financially.' says Alfaro. "So they were looking for work."

The solution? Pay them for summer school. It’s not a lot of money. Five bucks a day for these kids. But it’s enough.

Imagine Rodriquez is a soon-to-be ninth grader who almost decided not to attend the summer program.

"But then, I seen everybody else here, and then I was like, ‘You know what, I could make a little bit of money and then learn something at the same time," she says.

What she was learning, at that exact moment, was how to work with a team to build a balloon-powered rocket cart that would go farther than any other team’s.

The goal of this particular part of the summer program is to give the kids an edge in so-called STEM fields – science, technology engineering and math. The curriculum came from NASA.

I ask one team if they would still come every day if they didn't get paid. 

"No, probably not," says one. "Just being honest."

"No, I’d probably be at home," says another.

Instead, they’re making little self-propelled rocket cars out of old disposable lunch trays, a balloon and some tape.

After the teams give their rocket cars a go, Terry Gaule brings things back around.

"How does that apply to Newton’s Third Law?" he asks the students. "How’s Newton’s third law apply to what you did today?"

Action, reaction.

Jesse, an upcoming eighth grader, had his doubts about the program. He had his doubts about school in general.

I thought it was all playing around, like everything was a game," he told me. 

But next year, he says things will be different. He'll be better. 

Jesse tells me he’s going to do better because of what he learned in this program. Not the rocket stuff, or even the fact that he was paid to learn – although that helped. Jesse says what he learned from other aspects of the program is that what he does now matters for his future.

The action: investing in kids like Jesse.

The reaction: Jesse is now invested in school.  

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
Related Content