Enrichment program for New Haven kids offers life skills, summer ‘magic’
As a participant this summer in the Ulysses S. Grant Program, an enrichment program led by Yale students, middle schooler Klara Oppenheimer has “gone” on a murder mystery cruise, played the games Kahoot! and charades, and participated in a T-shirt design contest, among other activities. But what the rising sixth grader in New Haven’s Engineering and Science University Magnet School has most enjoyed are the “deep discussions” she’s had in her classes.
“It’s so great to connect with other minds, and U.S. Grant is a wonderful opportunity to do that,” said Oppenheimer. “I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
This is Oppenheimer’s first year in the U.S. Grant Program, a summer academic program for academically curious sixth- through ninth-grade students in New Haven’s public and parochial schools. For the Yale students who lead it, hearing that the middle school students have been enjoying their summer brings both gratitude and relief. For the second consecutive summer, the program has been run entirely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, as any teacher conducting remote learning knows, it can be a challenge to keep the students attentive and focused.
“On Zoom, no matter how excited you are as a teacher, if you aren’t giving students different ways to access the material — a million different peepholes to get engaged — it’s going to fall flat,” said rising Yale sophomore Josie Steuer Ingall, a co-director of the U.S. Grant Program this year with Mia Coates ’22.
Reports from middle school students have been highly positive, however. They say they’ve learned things that are helping them think about their future goals. And, most importantly, they have been having fun every day.
“We do a lot of cool things in our core classes and electives, and we have a lot of fun activities,” said Fallon Williams, a rising eighth grader at Barnard Environmental Magnet School, who is now in her third year in the program.
The Grant program was established 68 years ago by Yale student Eugene Van Voorhis ’55, ’58 LL.B. as a tutoring program for African American students to help them prepare for college. It has since evolved into a five-week academic summer program for motivated New Haven students of any race.
The 53 middle schoolers spend their mornings in a 75-minute interdisciplinary core class and have an elective class every other day in the afternoons. This year, sixth- and seventh-grade students had a choice between two core classes: one that explores popular children’s media and the social, political, and cultural biases embedded in it and the other an examination of memory — both how it is stored in the brain as well as collective memory and its expression via cemeteries, public memorials, and monuments. Eighth- and ninth-graders chose between a class that investigates the culture, history, and science of food or a music appreciation course that exposes them to a range of musical genres.
Elective courses included a DIY “backyard” building class using everyday items, an exploration of how New Haven has been built and rebuilt over time and the impact of those transformations on civic life, and an introduction to media and narrative storytelling.
Creating citizens, making things, having a new lens
For the seven Yale students teaching in the program, one appeal of spending their summer working for U.S. Grant is that they can develop their own curriculum around a course topic that interests them.
“I’m in the education studies program and want to be a teacher,” said Steuer Ingall, who teaches the elective “Time-Traveling Through Our Elm City.” In her course, students learn how urban planning affects their day-to-day lives, exposes them to issues of social justice in the urban environment, and allows them to create their own urban renewal project. Steuer Ingall invited urban planners and city alders to be guest speakers in the course, including New Haven’s Director of Parking Doug Hausladen, whose visit one morning ignited a discussion about some of challenges city dwellers face around issues of transportation, pedestrian safety, and discrimination.
In one activity, students explored the issue of redlining and how it affects human lives and their own ideas about what “home” means.
In addition to using online technologies, such as a videoconferencing platform, Steuer Ingall engaged her students with primary source documents, such writings and photos of the Oak Street neighborhood to explain the transition to automotive-centered design in American cities in the 20th century.
“I want my students to walk away feeling like a citizen of New Haven and that they have the power to change things in their communities,” said Steuer Ingall, who is majoring in urban studies.
In a class he co-teaches with Akweley Mazarae Lartey ’23 called “Food for Thought: The Culture, History, and Science Behind What We Eat,’ Leo Lehrer-Small ’22 invites his students to indicate on a world map the origins of various spices to explore how far food travels, while investigating the broader questions of the role of food in culture, family history, and personal identity. In their classroom sessions on Zoom, the students have managed to have each other in view as they’ve made bread, pickled vegetables, and conducted some science experiments involving food.
Lehrer-Small also co-teaches, with Chidima Anekwe ’24, the elective class “Backyard Building,” a DIY engineering course where students use materials from home to make such objects as solar ovens, windmills, and water-powered cars.
The program, he said, is like a mix between school and summer camp. He spent last year serving as a co-director of the program and was a teacher in it the previous year.
“It’s the kids who have kept me coming back; there are a lot of students who come back year after year and it meant a lot to me to be able to come back with them, so it’s not just a new Yale student teaching them every year,” he said. “They could see that I was staying with them, too.”
Anekwe became a first-time U.S. Grant teacher this year as a way to become more immersed in the New Haven community. In addition to “Backyard Building,” she also teaches the core class “Disney Channel did WHAT? Exposing and Mastering the Art of Children’s Media.” Her goal is to have her students “emerge from the course equipped with a new lens to analyze the media they consume and the ability to create stories that are both persuasive and worthwhile,” she said in her course description.
“I also love working with kids and just being a big part of a team that genuinely cares about the work they are doing,” Anekwe said. “Grant was the perfect fit.”
Anekwe, who is majoring in English at Yale, says the experience has allowed her to watch how community is formed. After a few weeks of teaching, she said, the U.S. Grant community of teachers and students felt like a family. “Everyone shows up, day after day, with a smile on their faces and the attitude that they truly want to be there.”
A ‘rescued’ summer
Both Steuer Ingall and Mia Coates, this year’s co-directors, said overseeing the educational program virtually — and contending occasionally with challenges such as students’ computer and internet connectivity issues or fostering a sense of community among the teachers remotely — has taught them valuable lessons. While some are in New Haven, others are in New York, Arizona, and other locations.
“Last year I learned how to become a teacher but also how to become a Zoom teacher,” said Coates, an American studies major, of her first year in Grant. “Now I am learning what it means to run or co-run something, what it means to be a good employee but also a good boss. The U.S. Grant Program is what made my summer last year. It’s the same this year. Grant rescued a summer of chaos and has given me a lot of purpose but also a lot of happiness and reflection.”
Reflecting on the summer as the program winded down in its last week, Yale alumna Janna Wagner ’95, the chair of the U.S. Grant board of directors and founder and director of the national nonprofit All Our Kin, admitted that she had at first doubted that the program could be successful in a virtual format.
“I believed you couldn’t do it on Zoom,” said Wagner, a New Haven native who participated in the U.S. Grant Program as a youngster. “That the Yale co-directors and teachers were able to hold onto and inspire a love of learning, community, and excitement about ideas over the computer is really amazing to observe. I think we kept the U.S. Grant Program mission alive, although we do miss being in the same space together.”
“The U.S. Grant Program has always been transformative for both the Yale students and the kids who are engaged,” said Claudia Merson, also member of the U.S. Grant Program board and the director of public school partnerships in the Office of New Haven Affairs, which helps fund the program. “Both students and teachers have profound memories of their time in U.S. Grant. It’s really a flagship program for Yale.”
‘More magical every time’
For Luca Rivera, a rising ninth grader at Hillhouse High School, the inability to be in person for the past two years has not diminished his appreciation for being a participant.
“I have been attending U.S. Grant for the past four years and it becomes more magical every time,” he said. “I love the community more than anything. The people I have met in this experience are those who have stayed in my memory above all else.”
And for Nathan Fekadu, a rising eighth grader at Nathan Hale School, it was learning about memory itself that has been most special. While taking the core course “Is It All Just in Your Head? Memory and the World Around Us,” he became fascinated learning about axons in the brain and their role in how memories are formed and stored.
“It made me keep wanting to be a scientist,” said Fekado. “Grant is an amazing program and I hope more people apply next year.”
For more information on the U.S. Grant Program, visit the program’s website.