In 2007, then-Mayor McKee created a school enrichment program in Cumberland. Here’s what it’s …

Linda Borg

| The Providence Journal

CUMBERLAND — In 2007, then-Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee had a thought: what if the town created a municipal department that offered year-round education programs to youth, with an emphasis on early childhood?

That sparked the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth and Learning, a new municipal department that would focus on early-childhood education and after-school enrichment programs.

Since then, the office has blossomed into a multi-purpose center that meets the needs of children for the first two decades of their lives, beginning at age 3.

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The early-childhood program remains at the heart of the program.

On the second floor, 4- and 5-year-olds are working in small groups. Two children are building a house with wooden blocks. Another pair are working on letters, fitting them into a puzzle. At a third station, they are playing bingo on a huge primary-colored rug. When a teacher calls out a letter of the alphabet, the children race to jump on that letter.

Another corner is entitled “small, weird play.”

The room is ablaze with color, from the blocky letters of the alphabet to the word walls. The children work independently, with the two teachers primarily acting as coaches, moving from group to group.

Today the theme is leprechauns, but the real focus is literacy. For some children, it’s recognizing letters; for others, it’s learning to read sight words. The children come to class two days a week for literacy and one for math.

Cumberland’s learning program is centered around three strands: early childhood, the STEAM shop for grades kindergarten to ninth, and Backpack to Briefcase, ages 7-12.

Located in the former senior center, the early-childhood classes also target “numbers sense,’ according to director Liz Lemier White.

“We introduce kids to a formal education experience,” she said.

But the center also recognizes that families are a crucial part of a child’s early education. Parents and grandparents can participate in a music and movement program, something White called a “multi-generational approach with teachers who share information on early-childhood development.”

Early childhood is supported by a combination of grants, tuition and $250,000 from the town.

The charge for a typical preschool child is $1,500 a year, but White said 20% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and pay substantially lower tuition.

Merits challenged

Not everyone is smitten by the program, however. City Councilwoman (and former School Committee member) Lisa Beaulieu has publicly questioned whether the early-childhood program has demonstrated that it moves the academic needle.

The program is not state-certified.

As recently as last week’s Town Council meeting, Beaulieu asked to see enrollment data from the Office of Children, Youth and Learning.

As mayor, McKee touted the center for improving academic outcomes among students. Beaulieu wants to see proof.

“As a town council, we need to ask what metrics are being met that show OCYL is preparing students,” Beaulieu said Wednesday.

White acknowledges that her office hasn’t done a formal study, but said it does do pre-and post-assessments.

“We have lots of community support,” she said. “Even teachers send their children here. Parents have spoken up at meetings attesting to the value of the program.”

The Journal reached out to McKee and Cumberland Mayor Jeffrey Mutter for comment Wednesday.

‘These people are committed’

Mark Fiorello, a parent and Cumberland School Committee member, had nothing but praise for the center.

“These people are committed and dedicated to children,” he said. “My daughter took guitar with them and it was wonderful. People love their preschool.”

The second piece is the STEAM Shop, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. It is offered to grades K through 9, and students are encouraged to let their creativity run wild.

One group of kids recently built an entire tiny village using cardboard, beads, plastic and twine. Another built flip books.

Run both after school and over school vacations, STEAM Shop offers everything math-related, from chess to robotics. Students are encouraged to brainstorm and workshops span ages and abilities.

“The whole process is open-ended,” said Jamie Drosta, program coordinator. “Kids are trying something and failing and trying it again. The leaders bubble up to the top.”

Too often, schools forget the “A” in STEAM. Steam Shop recognizes that some students are just so-so in math but shine in art. This program mixes it all together.

“When a child asks how, we answer with a question,” White says. “There is no time pressure here.”

Civic engagement

The final piece is Backpack to Briefcase.

The concept began in 2008 when a high school student, Matthew Diamond, asked McKee how teenagers could contribute to the Cumberland community. That led to the creation of the Cumberland Youth Commission, whose mission was to get young people engaged in civic life.

Now this program offers everything from college advising to service programs.

“There is a huge need for families to understand the application process,” Drosta said. “We demystify the process.”

A summer academy teaches high school and middle school students to become leaders. Think of it “Adulting 101,” or as preparation to join the Youth Commission.

It also tackles social/emotional issues facing students. “Our Minds Matter” creates a safe space for students to express their emotions.

Finally, Backpack to Briefcase has partnered with a state program, Prepare Rhode Island, which offers paid job-based internships to high school seniors.

“This is just another way of connecting kids to a safe, caring environment,” White said.

Linda Borg covers education for the Journal.

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