ALBANY -- About a dozen elementary students broke into groups of three or four and huddled around jars of water that were stuffed at the top with wads of cotton.
With each student in each group assigned a particular task, the class conducted an experiment that combined the subject areas of math and science. The task: determine how many drops of blue dye were needed to penetrate the cotton and fall into the water, replicating a scaled-down version of precipitation.
Each group had a dropper, a counter, and at least one observer. As one student squeezed a tube of blue coloring dye over the jar, another student counted while the others eagerly waited for the dye to reach the water.
“Keep going,” Joanna Hoyt, a second-grade teacher at Albany Lower Elementary, told her wide-eyed students. “Remember, the cloud is getting heavier with each drop.”
After a minute or two, one group shouted triumphantly as blue dye spread into the jar of water.
“Thirty drops!” shouted an excited student. “That was fun.”
More importantly, it was educational.
Fun and learning were the two major themes of the first-ever Hornet Academy, a two-week summer camp for Albany-area students that ran July 12-23.
The camp was open to students in grades K-12, allowing them a chance to refresh on what they learned in the previous school year while also preparing them for what they’ll learn in the upcoming school year.
The camp ran daily from 7:15 a.m. - 1:45 p.m., giving students an early primer for a typical school day. Students were bussed to the Albany Upper Elementary and Albany High School campuses each day, and they were provided with a free breakfast and lunch.
Around 130 students attended camp daily, along with about two dozen teachers.
The idea for the camp came from School Board member Devin Gregoire, who represents the Albany district. Speaking to The News during a recent tour of the Hornet Academy, Gregoire lauded those who ran the camp and called it a “proactive approach” to the possible learning loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were less affected than other places in the United States, but we were still affected by it,” Gregoire said. “And with all the data coming back about learning loss, I wanted to see if there was something we could do to preemptively start addressing that.
“So this is a proactive approach to combating learning loss.”
Louis Sansovich, a science teacher at Albany High School who recently obtained his master’s degree in educational leadership, oversaw the daily operations of the Hornet Academy. Sansovich described the Academy as a “bridging the gap camp” with two areas of focus: remediation and preparation.
“If there were any gaps from the COVID year, we wanted to be able to identify them and supplement our kids where it’s needed while also preparing them going into the next school year.
“But this isn’t something where I said, ‘This is exactly what our second graders or fifth graders will do,’ because I teach college-level biology and I don’t know what the younger kids need. So I left that up to those teachers because they know what students coming into their class should know and what would benefit them most.”
Sansovich said the Academy started with each student taking a pre-camp test to gage where they were at. The next two weeks were spent supplementing and building on that knowledge base.
But Sansovich and teachers kept one thing in mind throughout the two-week run: This was still summertime.
“One of the things we wanted to remember is this is the kids’ summer,” he said. “So one thing we wanted to do while focusing on learning is we also wanted to make it fun, and our teachers have done a great job at that.”
Jessica Crayton, a first-grade teacher entering her 19th year at Albany Lower, and her fellow teachers renamed their section of the Hornet Academy to “Camp Learn A Lot,” with most of the activities based on a camp-theme.
In one activity, students made s’mores and melted the sweet treat to show the changes in states of matter (solid, liquids, and gases). In another activity, students competed to see who could use the most marshmallows in a tower-building contest. They also used probability to determine whose sugary structure would come crashing down.
Crayton shared photos to social media of her students completing various other activities, such as building landforms out of Play-Doh or constructing a math pyramid. Sansovich posted many more photos of the camp to the Albany High School Facebook page, giving parents a sample of the learning and fun their children were experiencing.
Speaking to The News, Crayton said she would “definitely” recommend this kind of program, especially for at-risk kids and the ones that struggled because of COVID-19.
“Quite a few of the faces I recognize are the ones who missed a lot last year because of COVID,” she said. “So their parents are honing in on this opportunity for their kids to improve their skills. It really has helped them, and I think it’ll help with the transition of going back to school, too.”
Other teachers also found creative ways to teach their students.
Under sixth-grade teacher Harley DeKeyzer, students took their fractions lesson to the kitchen to bake brownies. In another food-themed exercise, students in Deanne Lopez’s class learned about the differences between chemical and physical changes with no-bake cookies.
Danielle Magruder, a teacher at the high school, had her students create their own lava lamps using common household items. On another day, Jeffrey Watts’ students honed their geography knowledge through games that included drawing the United States and naming all of the states.
Some teachers also incorporated the arts, such as Hope Graham, who had her high school-age students create dialogue by making their own comic strips.
Rita Wortmann, a science and math teacher at Albany Upper, couldn’t believe her students had never made paper airplanes — something she quickly changed.
Crayton said the Hornet Academy allowed teachers to think more “outside the box,” which is harder to do in the traditional classroom setting. It also allowed for more one-on-one interaction, something that is difficult with twice as many students.
“We’re still tying everything to Louisiana content standards, but it’s a little more laid back, so we were able to take the camping theme and run with it,” she said. “That’s something we can’t really do in the regular classroom because everything is structured. With this, we’ve been able to tie in those standards and make it fun, and they’ve been really liking it.”
The inaugural Hornet Academy concluded with a post-camp test to see the gains the students had made. Though he hadn’t gone over all the data, Sansovich said the teachers told him they saw “great improvement,” with one teacher saying it was equivalent to two months of work in a traditional classroom setting.
“She walked a student into my office in the middle of the day because she was so excited and she couldn’t stop smiling and blushing because she was so proud of himself,” Sansovich said.
Following the post-camp test, students enjoyed a fun day in which they played games and enjoyed ice cream from Captain’s Tasty Treats. One teacher said she heard several students call it the “best day ever.”
Gregoire said funds for the Hornet Academy are coming from the district’s ESSER funding. His hope is to make the camp an annual program, calling it a “total benefit” to the students who get to combat learning loss in a nurturing environment.
“It’s a win-win all the way around,” he said.