Sept. 15, 2014
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Engineer aims high over the summer

Kenneth K Ma, ma28 [at], 925-423-7602

Monika Witte's summer vacation wasn't really a vacation.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) engineer took six weeks off to volunteer at a local summer educational program thataims to close the opportunity and achievement gaps for low-income middle school students by offering classroom instruction and academic enrichment activities.

"I wanted to know how the educational system works in underserved communities," said Witte, who is the deputy division leader of the Laser Systems Engineering & Operational Division. "It was a very good experience for me."

The Bay Area program, known as Aim High, began in 1986 to provide students with a five-week program offering classes in math, science, humanities (combined language arts and social studies) and issues and choices (an adolescent development class). Aim High, which has campuses in the Bay Area and Lake Tahoe, also provides arts, cultural enrichment activities, sports and physical activities such as hiking and yoga. Students typically enroll in the program after finishing 5th or 6th grade and remain for three or four consecutive summers.

The program provides small classes of 16 or fewer students per instructor. It reinforces academic lessons from the previous school year and prepares students to succeed in the upcoming school year.

Witte learned about the program when an Aim High representative spoke about it at The Athenian School, an independent school in Danville where she is a trustee. Aim High's mission impressed her so much that she decided to volunteer and to learn what effectively motivates middle school students who face many challenges.

"With active community support during the summer, the kids are able to go to the zoo, enjoy reading activities and other summer programs. They are doing a lot of things to maintain their academic level," Witte said. "If you are a student in an underserved community, you do not have many opportunities during the summer. Studies have shown that these kids tend to slide and fall behind."

After a week of training, Witte was assigned to be a math class teacher's aide for students entering the 6th and 7th grades. Her Aim High site was located at Lighthouse Community Charter School, a K-12 school that serves East Oakland communities.

Witte and an Aim High teacher took turns giving lectures on basic arithmetic such as fractions and algebra during the 45-minute class, which had 15 students in each of three periods.

"The kids would often say that math was hard for them," said Witte, who also tutored the students one-on-one at study hall. "But they would appreciate the fact that we were taking so much time to show them the ropes. It was gratifying that the students showed improvement from the beginning to the end of the summer."

Beyond math, Witte also practiced yoga with the students and chaperoned them on hiking trips to Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, Lake Chabot Regional Park in Castro Valley and other parks.

"Every afternoon was spent interacting with the kids in a nonacademic setting," she said. "Since the academic teachers also led the enrichment activities, the kids got to know us pretty well."

Witte ended her time at Aim High by taking her students on a field trip to the National Ignition Facility and LLNL's Discovery Center. It was an eye-opening experience for the students who asked a lot of questions, she said.

"They loved it," she said.

Aim High was a revelatory experience for Witte, who is passionate about helping all students succeed. She wants them to understand their options for college and how to pursue their dreams.

"I want them to stick with their education and realize that there are people in the community who will help them find resources and scholarships," Witte said.