Every child needs a strong educational foundation. Research shows that a foundation needs to be built as early as possible so that by the time a child starts kindergarten, he or she is ready to hit the ground running.
Being kindergarten-ready, though, is not easy for kids who come from homes wracked by poverty and dysfunction, from neighborhoods beset by violence and crime.
That's where the FIU Summer Academy makes a difference. It's a seven-week, comprehensive school readiness program for at-risk pre-K children.
"All of the children that attend our program have moderate to severe learning and behavioral needs, they're already showing some early risk factors that we know are gonna impact their transition to kindergarten and what we want to do is help them and their families get off to kindergarten on the right foot," said Dr. Katie Hart, the camp director and assistant professor at FIU's Center for Children and Families.
The FIU Summer Academy in Liberty City has 43 kids learning academic skills with a huge dose of TLC. The counselors, one for every three campers, dole out a ton of hugs. They also get kids up to speed. When they started the program six weeks ago, only 40 percent were reading at grade level. Now 80 percent are.
"So school readiness isn't just about the academics that kids need to learn to be prepared for the environment of kindergarten, but also the behavioral and social-emotional preparation that they need to be successful and thrive in the kindergarten setting," Hart explained.
They use sports, like kickball, to teach teamwork and socialization skills.
"In a game environment you're learning so many different things that you need to know to be a good friend, to be a good player on a team, a good sport," Hart said.
The camp gets parents involved, too. The counselors teach moms and dads the same skills they use to manage behaviors.
"And also, not just behaviors, but we're also encouraging, really focusing on those early literacy and numeracy skills that are the building blocks of the transition to kindergarten," explained Randi Cheatham-Johnson, an FIU doctoral student who runs the parenting part of the camp.
This pre-K boot camp works. The data from nine years of this program shows kids who graduate from the FIU Summer Academy are eight times less likely to be retained in kindergarten, they're less likely to be referred to special education programs and more likely to have the academic skills they need to do well in school.
It's a classic example of how early intervention can put kids on the path to academic success.