Something cooking in the Village

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Last week, to use a phrase coined by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, the It Takes a Village Project at Elon University, “kicked it up a notch.”

That’s why on a Wednesday night in December several hundred Alamance County students who are part of a tutoring program at Elon found themselves making soup, cornbread and chocolate cake or learning about broccoli and pineapple in Elon University’s Alumni Gym rather than in classrooms scattered through three academic buildings on campus. They were there to learn about nutrition, healthy lifestyles and … fractions.

Yes, fractions.

It’s the kind of innovative thinking and action that has lifted the Village Project, headed by Dr. Jean Rattigan-Rohr, director of the Center for Access and Success at Elon, to a level of success not usually seen in similar outreach programs. The Village Project is an effort initiated a few years ago by jean and the Center for Access and Success to help tutor children in Alamance County who are struggling to read. That’s how it started. Many of the children and parents who are part of the project are from other countries. English is often the second language in their homes. Over time the Village Project has expanded into other tutoring areas to include music, social studies, math and finances. Elon faculty, staff and students help with the tutoring as do teachers with the Alamance-Burlington School System. Parents are not only encouraged to take part, but are required to do so.

I’ve written a few times about the Village Project over the past two years and you can find all the posts collected here.

Every year more families sign up for tutoring sessions held weekly during the fall and spring semesters on the Elon campus. A two-week summer day camp is conducted in July. I volunteered there the past two summers. That’s how much I love this program and how important I think it is to the students and their families.

Probably the greatest strength of The Village Project is the community it creates among the families, teachers, faculty, staff and Elon students. Following closely behind at No. 2 is Jean’s dedication to creating new initiatives to improve and grow the Village. Typically, she says, similar college outreach efforts don’t last two years. The Village is still thriving after more than five years.

Both were on display last week in Alumni Gym. Hundreds of kids with their families were either stationed at tables or in in the bleachers. This was the final night of the fall Village tutoring sessions and this particular event was created to cap the work completed this fall by middle school students from various schools in the Alamance-Burlington system. Among the spectators was Dr. Bruce Benson, the superintendent for the Alamance-Burlington School System.

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Jean Rattigan-Rohr chats with ABSS Superintendent Bruce Benson at Alumni Gym.

Because math was identified as a serious problem due to low test scores, students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades put their primary focus there. Younger children concentrated on reading.

Jean and the Village organizers got the idea for a nutrition and cooking class at the end of the semester when representatives for Harvest Home,  a division of the Aramark food services company at Elon, approached asking how they might contribute to the Village Project. Having the middle school students learn about recipes was offered as a way to learn about weights, measures and fractions — the latter being a tough subject for students to grasp.

So on Dec. 5, the students, with help from Harvest Home chefs, put three recipes to the test: Three-bean soup, cornbread and chocolate cake — all prepared in mason jars so the families could take the dishes home, add water and heat.

Alumni Gym was divided by a curtain. On one side, the middle school students worked at long tables with their Elon student tutors and a Harvest Home chef. On the other, K-5 students sat tables with a parent and tutors. The kids wore hats with the image of broccoli or pineapple affixed to the front. A speaker asked questions about fruits or vegetables the kids might not know about. Then they sampled a few bites of green grapes, pineapple, mango, carrots, celery or broccoli. They had a ball.

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The middle school students had fun, too, but there was some work involved before they could eat the meal prepared for them as well as the one to take home. Chef Jay Vetter of Harvest Home is addressing the group. He talks about food and its importance in shaping family as well as life experiences. His words are being translated into Spanish. He speaks amiably. “I know when I left school I I thought I would never use math again as long as I lived. But you know what? We use math every day in our kitchen,” he says.

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Most of the students are very precise in their measurements. One student carefully levels off the top of a teaspoon of paprika for the soup. At another table Chef Danny Sartyoungkul is going over the recipe for cornbread. He already has an easy rapport with the kids and exhorts one measuring in the cornmeal, “Almost there, only two more ounces. Just like that. Very good, awesome. Good job.”

At a table where the ingredients for chocolate cake are going in a mason jar, chef Casey Fellows is leading a table full of boys and girls. “Everybody put in the vanilla extract,” he asks. A couple of feet away Jeancarlo, a sixth-grader, mumbles, “I don’t even know what that is.” Fellows grabs the small dish with vanilla extract and tells Jeancarlo to use two teaspoons.

Jackie Salas Rodriquez stands with her finished product, three full mason jars. Jackie is a seventh-grader from Broadview Middle School in Burlington. She says the recipe exercise and demonstration helped her understand fractions better. It helped me visually see them,” she says.

She also found the exercise fun, enjoyed the freedom to make a mess and was ready to bake the chocolate cake as soon as she got home.

As Jackie stood to the right of her creation her tutor Grace Crowley, a sophomore at Elon, stands with pride. Grace and Jackie worked together this semester on math in particular. It was a change for Grace, who worked with students on reading last spring. The math classes had a different structure. A teacher from ABSS led the class, but supplied workbooks and problems for the students to solve. Working with Jackie was rewarding but Grace notes that anytime teach or learn after school it’s a positive thing.

Almost anyone who has seen the Village Project in action would agree.

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