Fun School

Super Summer Program at Southwest High School in Minneapolis gives parents an economical alternative to summer child care while giving kids opportunities to learn while they have fun

By Tim Montgomery, Pioneer Press staff writer

Fun School"Good morning boys and girls," says the calm voice via a jury-rigged public address system. The voice welcomes children and their parents to the ancient West Building of Southwest High School in Minneapolis. Power is out in half the rooms as electricians rewire the lower level. Dust from ongoing reconstruction rises to form eerie halos around hallway lights. But the children still come, and everyone is very excited.

"To my right, we have art-to-wear, calligraphy, fun with drawing, loom beading, paper making, pottery, babysitting, Beanie Baby land, bicycle tours and maintenance, computer camp, cooking . . ." the voice continues. "To my left: rocketry, basketball, golf, indoor floor hockey, Rollerblading, soccer . . ."

As the voice persists, hundreds of kids gather in the hallways under signs listing more than 100 course offerings. Teachers and aides await the onslaught with open arms. Super Summer Program is about to kick off another week.

The voice belongs to Community Education Director Tom Neiman. Since 1985, he and his staff have built this formidable summer program under the Southwest community education banner. An average of 750 children now pack the old high school and spill out into nearby Pershing Park for four days every week for six weeks in June and July. Neiman has close to 100 staff members this year, including teachers, aides and volunteers, to ensure children have safe, supervised fun.

It's the largest program of its kind, topping regular single-site attendance for all similar summer programs in the Twin Cities area. Minneapolis' free Phat Summer program draws about 3,300 kids citywide, according to David Warnest, a coordinator for six north-side sites. But probably not more than 100 kids drop in regularly at any one Phat Summer location. In St. Paul, community education runs the Discovery Program, weekly school-aged child care that has drawn as many as 350 kids for a fee roughly twice that of Southwest's. Summer Smarts, Cool School and several other themed camps also provide enrichment components to groups of school-aged youth.

"What the program at Southwest provided was a lot of options," said Mary Dooley Burns, assistant St. Paul community education director. A Minneapolis resident, Burns' two daughters both attended Southwest's Super Summer Program. "Tom Neiman has taken all these camps and put them together into one collective program."

The Southwest Super Summer Program is open to any child in kindergarten through junior high. It's organized in one-week segments with the option of attending a half- or full-day program. The cost is $35 per week for a half day, or $70 per week for a full day.

The program draws kids from all corners of the metropolitan area. Some even come from as far away as California to continue a family tradition at Southwest during visits with relatives. In the years the program has been around, many participants have gone on to become aides or teachers. Some have even become parents of students currently enrolled in the program. Many parents and children wish the program would extend through August.

"Parents, please try not to skip and smile as you leave the building," the voice of Tom Neiman playfully echoes about the hallway. Then, 10 minutes after the kids first gather, only the electrical contractors are left roaming the halls. Rocketry and model building share Room 113. Math wizard Abe Gadalla is getting kids to construct mathematical equations by playing card games in Room 109. Southwest track coach Ben Zhao has taken a crew of young prospects to Pershing Park for a workout. Bicycle and in-line skating classes are working the sidewalks. And Brent LaSalle's group has gone fishin' at Lake Harriet.

But Southwest's Super Summer Program is about more than just fun. There's real learning going on.

Entering his second year at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, Southwest graduate and former Super Summer Program participant Fred Beukema has somehow interested a group of kids in physics. They are comparing the projection of a thrown ball with the gyroscopic motion of a Frisbee. Beukema has borrowed a bicycle wheel to further demonstrate the stable, floating motion of the spinning Frisbee.

"Spinning objects tend to resist change from their axis or center of motion," he explains as his pupils hold the spinning wheel while trying to turn it. "That's why a spinning bike wheel tends to go straight and you don't tend to tip over."

Beukema's physics group has also experimented with electromagnets and pendulums. In one exercise, they tried to determine whether weight or distance affected the length of time a pendulum would remain in motion. And when a fan blew itself off a table, they talked about friction.

"What would we do without friction?" said certified woodshop teacher Cris Harper when he heard of the fan's mysterious motion. "Without friction, we'd all need to wear Velcro."

In just four days, Harper's students can be seen proudly carrying an array of finely crafted wooden benches and bookshelves. Their success will be due in large part to the principle of friction.

More than anything, the success of Southwest's Super Summer Program is reflected in the faces of kids waiting to launch their rockets, ride horses or display the art they created. And where else could you take a class called "Bubbles and Silly Goo"?

Ten-year-old Alethea Thambiah Dawson has been taking summer classes at Southwest since she was 7. Her favorite class this year has been horseback riding.

"On the first day, we drew pictures of our dream horse and learned the different parts of a horse. We made T-shirts on the second day, and we went riding the last two days," Alethea said. "It's cool."

As classes let out for the day at 3:30 p.m., the voice of Tom Neiman echoes once more through the hallways: "We have reports that somebody was smiling."

This story, published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press daily newspaper, was accompanied by 2 photos and 2 graphics by Tim Montgomery.