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STARS program at Stuart brings academic enrichment to Trenton kids

By Emily Laermer, Staff Writer
   It takes most people months to learn how to play an instrument. For students at the Summer STARS program, this process only takes four short weeks, thanks to band instructor David Geltch.
   ”It’s not as hard as you’d think,” he said. “The students are talented as it is, and there is a lot of music in today’s culture.”
   The 113 Trenton students who attended this summer academic enrichment program were given the opportunity to learn how to play instruments that were donated by the Music and Arts Center located in Mercer Mall in Lawrence, in addition to being exposed to other academic programs.
   ”Music is the only subject that teaches the soul,” Mr. Geltch said. “Plus, it has all the academics — there’s reading, there’s physical education, there’s foreign language, there’s science with the acoustics. It’s all inclusive.”
   STARS, a 20-year-old program hosted by Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart and funded largely by Bristol-Myers Squibb, allows second- to sixth-grade students the opportunity to keep their minds fresh during the summer, said STARS Director Samantha Thetgyi-Ryan, who has been working at the program for three years.
   The entire program costs $125, and there are scholarships available.
   ”Every year, when the students get back to school, there was a regression over the summer,” said math teacher Brian Horan, who has been working at the camp for the past nine summers. “This keeps that from happening. It’s important to have kids ready when they get back to school so they don’t get behind. It gives them an advantage.”
   Mr. Horan, who teaches elementary school at the Stockton Borough School, says that he is able to keep his students engaged by “making math fun.”
   The hands-on activities include a magic square where students practice binary, a Battleship-type game where they learn about grid coordinates and several math puzzles.
   ”I really like going to math,” said Herbert Ellis, an 11-year-old sixth grader from the Foundation Academy in Trenton. “The games are a lot of fun.”
   Herbert also enjoys going to his science, reading and arts classes.
   ”Reading is fun because we are always doing funny stuff. Our teacher tells us to talk like it is actually in the book,” he said. “Like, if there is an exclamation point, act like it’s an exclamation.”
   Although Herbert was initially mad when his mother forced him to come to the program, he was pleasantly surprised by it.
   ”I would rather stay here than go back to my school,” he said. “It’s more fun here.”
   Many of the other students echo Herbert’s thoughts.
   ”They teach us stuff here that that might have missed over you in school,” said JonBonae Shipman, a sixth-grader at the Foundation Academy, who has attended the program for two years. “It’s important to prepare you for the next school year, and we really do get that preparation.”
   All of the teachers at the summer program are also teachers during the school year. Ms. Thetgyi-Ryan said that the teachers who help with the program do it because they love the job.
   ”I fell in love with the camp,” Ms. Thetgyi-Ryan said. “What I really like about the camp is that the teachers are very much into positive reinforcement. All kids want is praise for their accomplishments, and they do a great job making every child know that they are special.”
   Ms. Thetgyi-Ryan said that the teachers’ attitude has helped contribute to both the students’ and their own positive experiences.
   ”This program really makes us appreciate the kids more — it makes you appreciate everyone’s different walks of life,” she said, “and with that appreciation comes respect, which is important for the kids to know.”
   The program also hosted several assemblies throughout the month, including an African drummer who discussed his music, a clown who lectured about self-respect and a choreographed dance team.
   ”They all have to do with our theme, teamwork,” Ms. Thetgyi-Ryan said.
   The program also works to help the students raise their confidence in the subjects they are exposed to. The students gave an Aug. 1 performance that included singing, dancing and instrumental skills.
   ”They have a real sense of accomplishment,” Ms. Thetgyi-Ryan said. “I cry every year. I can’t put into words how cool it is.”