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A girl sits playing guitar.

Summer PLUS and BLAST Programs Engage Record Numbers of Youth

August 21, 2014

By Joy Riggs, freelance journalist

More Northfield students attended free programs this summer designed to support academic achievement and enrichment – and these programs expanded their offerings thanks to increased community involvement.

“The kids seem to be enjoying it,” said Daryl Kehler, coordinator of Northfield Public Schools Targeted Services. “We’ve had new students, and new referrals, well into the program. Word is spreading.”

In past years, Summer PLUS provided academic instruction and enrichment activities for students in grades K-8 at one site for six weeks during the summer. The program is free, but students must qualify for Targeted Services or be referred by a teacher.

This year, the program was split into two separate programs based on age. Students in grades 6-8 attended “BLAST.” They received academic instruction in math, reading and other subjects at the middle school in the morning, and in the afternoon, they were bused to Carleton College, where they participated in enrichment activities of their choosing. These “clubs” were run by college faculty, student interns, and community groups and covered a range of interests, everything from cooking and outdoor sports to guitar lessons. The middle school students also spent one day a week working on a service learning project.

Elementary students in Summer PLUS followed a similar schedule, but they stayed at Sibley Elementary School for the entire day. They received academic instruction in the mornings from licensed teachers, and in the afternoons they were assigned to enrichment activity clubs led by community organizations and individuals. They also got to the Northfield pool once a week.

An extra week was added to both the BLAST and Summer PLUS programs this year to help combat the “summer slide” that students can experience when school is not in session.

Kehler said the improvements to the program were based on suggestions from the older students and have helped attract more participants.

“The feedback we got from middle schoolers was that they felt like they were still in elementary school and were treated like younger students. So we changed that to make it feel more like a middle school program,” Kehler said.

Last year the program served an average of 35 students per day in grades 6-8; this year, it served about 60. The number of participating students in grades K-5 also increased, from 165 last year to an average of 225 per day this summer.

Kehler said another reason for the increase in numbers was a change in the referral process. District staff actively pursued new referrals, using test scores and other data that helped them better identify students who were on the fringe of qualifying for the program.

Summer PLUS and BLAST have two main goals: to help catch students up to their peers academically, and to support the students’ social and emotional needs. The second goal is addressed by the “community clubs” part of the program, which exposed the students to a wide variety of opportunities supervised by caring adults.

“Research shows that summer school programs are most effective when they focus on that part of the student,” Kehler said. “They build those relationships, and it gets them re-energized about school, so they make those connections during the school year.”

Holding the afternoon sessions on a college campus provided an additional benefit to the middle school students, Kehler noted – it encouraged them to view attending college as an accessible goal.

Laura Riehle-Merrill, who works in Carleton’s Center for Community and Civic Engagement, said having BLAST programming at the college seemed like the perfect fit.

“A big portion of the work we do is focused on local education issues,” said Riehle-Merrill, the college’s director for Community Engagement and Student Leadership. “We identified that we wanted to make a difference in what we call the opportunity gap. When the occasion rose for us to host Summer BLAST, it felt like a great chance to utilize our campus in a way that’s really meaningful.”

Riehle-Merrill said BLAST benefited from the diverse interests of the participating college students and faculty, and it has provided Carleton students with a chance to hone their leadership skills.

“I’m proud of the collaboration, and hopefully there are net gains for both sides of this partnership – that’s what makes me so excited,” she said.

The Summer PLUS and BLAST programs ran through August 7. Kehler said organizers always welcome community volunteer to share their time and talents in the summer or the school year after school programs. For more information, contact him at or call the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative at (507) 664-3524.

In addition to receiving school district and state funding, the Summer PLUS and BLAST programs are also supported by grants from the Northfield Area United Way, Women In Northfield Giving Support, Sheltering Arms Foundation, and the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council.

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