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Upward Bound switches to digital summer program

Upward Bound students from Gilmer and Johnson High schools participate in the summer experience in a digital format. Anna McGill, bottom left, teaches public speaking to Ruby Mendoza, top center, Leslie Benitez, bottom center, and Adan Guerrero. Upward Bound switched its summer experience to a digital format this year because UNG closed its campuses due to the COVID-19 virus.

Like so many directors with summer camps or programs, Dr. Latrice Richardson had to devise a new plan for the Upward Bound summer residential experience because the University of North Georgia (UNG) closed its campuses due to the COVID-19 virus.

"This was an opportunity to face the challenge head on and be innovative for our students," said Richardson, project director of Upward Bound at UNG. "So we rolled up our sleeves and dug in."

Upward Bound is a federally funded program designed to help promising low-income, first-generation high school students from Johnson High School in Gainesville, Georgia, and Gilmer High School in Ellijay, Georgia, prepare to be successful in college. UNG provides mentoring, parent engagement, state assessment preparation, career exploration, cultural experiences, and college visits to each high school participant.

With a U.S. Department of Education grant allocated for the summer program plus support from both school districts, Richardson switched Upward Bound's summer experience to a digital format. The main difference was the synchronous program, which called for students to be online at the same time as their instructors.

"We noticed with asynchronous learning, students completed their assignments at their own pace. That diminished their motivation to stay on top of their work and be engaged in learning," Richardson said. "We wanted to provide them structure with the summer program."

The structured program mirrored the previous summer schedules with alterations. For the past two summers, Upward Bound students focused on science, technology, engineering, math, English, and a foreign language in the morning. In the afternoon, they took elective courses, had devoted study time and met with their student resident adviser, who acted as their guide and mentor.

This summer, the scheduled was flipped. Academic courses occurred from noon to 3 p.m. in 50-minute sessions. Mornings were designated for study skills and college prep workshops as well as meetings with a social worker to discuss managing stress and other self-care methods.

Student residential advisers met with students on a daily basis in small groups to provide mentoring and insert social engagement activities. For example, they played car karaoke and had scavenger hunts.

Richardson said the digital version has also introduced students to the online learning management system, eLearning@UNG or D2L.

"They will use this in college, and they will be ahead of the curve," Richardson said.

The summer program also exposed students to classes not offered at their current schools. For example, two science teachers from Gwinnett County Public Schools and Atlanta Public Schools taught the elective class about epidemiology, which deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.

Richardson said it was divine providence to have a class on a subject dealing with diseases during the coronavirus pandemic. She said a returning instructor directed her to two educators who both taught chemistry, biology and epidemiology.

"I thought, 'God, are you trying to tell me something,'" Richardson said. "I knew we needed to provide this class because it is a subject that is not taught in Gilmer or Hall County schools. And I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to give our kids."

The Upward Bound students had plenty of opportunities. Richardson said on any given day, 20 synchronous sessions occur, and the students have adapted to the program.

"We had challenges in the first two to three days, but now they are using the system with ease," she said.

Leslie Benitez said she actually enjoyed the online summer sessions because she can work in her familiar home environment. It has helped her conquer her fear of talking to a group of people, which has come in handy in the public speaking course.

"I've learned some new skills, too," said the 15-year-old sophomore at Gilmer High School. "I think my favorite part is when we do breakout sessions and get to talk individually about our speeches and what we need help with."

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