The air mattresses are plunked down haphazardly in makeshift rows. Solid blue. Freshly inflated.
They won’t get much use for a few more hours, even though the student-teachers who blew them up long to rest their heads. The teachers are tired, but they press on. There are too many lesson plans to pore over this evening and too many 8- and 9-year-olds depending on them.
This was just a day in the life of 15 Baldwin Wallace University students last week.
Led by Justin Caithaml — a Midview High School graduate — the students ate, slept and prepared lesson plans inside an old Parma church they rented while organizing an educational program for 50 to 60 under-underprivileged Akron youth.
“I tell them when they come back that they should try and take a 30- to 45-minute nap. They need it (for the next day),” Caithaml said during a quick break from a long night of writing, chart-making and role playing.
SMART, which stands for Shaping Music and Reading Together, just wrapped up Friday after a week at Schumacher Elementary School in Akron. It’s run entirely by the Baldwin Wallace students and is completely volunteer-based, using musical activities to improve the reading skills of children entering the third and fourth grades.
The commune-like component, where all the student-teachers cook, clean, eat, sleep and work in the same space for four days before and the week of the program, was decided upon during its inception three years ago. It was impossible for the college students to detach themselves from their kids at the end of each day, its founders thought. Total immersion was the only way to effectively improve their students’ lives.
“That’s just what this program is,” said Caithaml, 21, SMART’s executive director, who has been there since the beginning.
“It’s more than just a 9-to-5. That’s such a cliche phrase, but it really is more than just a day thing to us. Music educators are known for putting their heart and soul into it. It’s not something they can just put away.”
And the program appears to be working. The kids were reading on average 33 more words per minute after only one week at the end of the pilot year and 12 more words per minute after last summer’s conclusion.
Caithaml attributes the dip in average between the program’s first and second years, in part, to an increase in the number of kids who attended — from 35 the first year to 55 last summer. They worked hard to address that number this year, he said, including inviting their curriculum director to study the program and the curriculum as an independent study this summer.
He also stated that even though the improvement was smaller, it was still an improvement and that means those kids were returning to school in the fall better prepared.
“Overall I think the model is working,” Caithaml said. “I think it shows the connection between music and reading is really there.”
The world of academia backs him up. Numerous studies have linked music proficiency and academic excellence, especially in reading. A 2009 study published in the journal Psychology of Music, for example, found that children who were exposed to several years of music training faired far better on reading skills tests compared with their peers who did not have a music education.
SMART has also received some national recognition. The volunteers were invited last summer to present at the National Music Education Week sponsored by the National Association for Music Education in Baltimore and received requests to present at three other conferences in Chicago and Columbus.
By 6:25 p.m. Tuesday, the 15 student-teachers heeded Caithaml’s advice and retreated to their air mattresses at Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Parma. Within minutes, they were fast asleep after having stayed awake until 2 a.m. that morning tweaking their lessons.
“Mondays are always rough because they’re never sure exactly who they’ll have in the classroom,” said Adam Sheldon, SMART’s founder, who returned Tuesday to mentor the college students and offer assistance.
“The good thing is, I asked some of the kids how everything went on Tuesday and they all said that it went ‘outstanding.’ ”
Sheldon, who was a senior at Baldwin Wallace in Berea when he created SMART, said his goal was to improve upon an already-existing music camp program at the college. Instead of just teaching children music, though, he wanted to use music to expand reading skills.
Word quickly spread about the new venture throughout the music department, and when Caithaml learned about the project from a professor, he immediately expressed an interest in joining.
“When (Caithaml) was recommended, I was just told about this all-star student in the music education department, but his passion speaks for itself,” Sheldon, 25, said. “When he puts himself into something, he doesn’t just put 100 percent of himself, he puts 110 percent, if not more.”
Being a senior, it was important for Sheldon to find someone who could take the reins of the program when he graduated.
He didn’t need any more convincing after learning that, like himself, Caithaml was an Eagle Scout, which, to him, meant Caithaml’s leadership abilities would carry the program long after Sheldon was gone.
“We really wanted to make a project that was viable and not just another music camp, which has its own great benefit,” Caithaml said.
“Once we realized that there was all kinds of research that connection to music leads to other academic areas, we really wanted to push for it.”
They decided that working with inner-city kids would be an excellent learning experience, since that’s where most of the education jobs are for recent graduates.
Akron Schools accepted the program right away and the team began seeking grant money to cover its estimated $20,000 cost, which includes busing, lunches, materials and housing for the teachers. Parents must cover the $5 fee to enter their children, and since it is volunteer-based, none of the college students receive a paycheck.
The college students worked sometimes two or three to a classroom using classic music education concepts. Children clap syllables as they learn new words and engage in exercises such as choral reading where they read story passages aloud using a natural rhythm. Instruments donated by a music teacher in Streetsboro are also used to add more fun and excitement, and were played Friday during a performance for parents.
When the school day ended at 3 p.m. each day, the college students returned to the church to decompress, nap and go over the day’s events, dissecting what went well and what needed improvement for the next day.
Like Sheldon, other recent graduates who taught in the SMART program return as mentors and help dissect video recordings of the day’s lessons.
“It really speaks to the atmosphere of the program,” Caithaml said.
“It’s all really positive and everyone is just working together to create something so good.”
SMART has already begun the process of seeking additional sponsorships to secure its future, and the Akron-based Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation was brought on this year.
“We’re excited for the future,” Caithaml said. “We’re looking forward to ensuring that this is around for a long time.”
Contact Adam Wright at 329-7155 or email@example.com.