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Second- and third-grade students are more than just adorable handfuls of energy. They’re also crystal balls into the future.

A child who struggles with reading and writing in the early grades is in jeopardy of falling behind academically and never catching up. Why? Because that’s when kids develop the skills necessary to learn.

“In second and third grade you are learning to read. After that point, you read to learn,” Jennifer Bright, Bayside Community Center’s director of operations, said. “It is extremely important for all second and third graders to be proficient in their reading skills by the time they are promoted to the fourth grade.”

Bayside Community Center in Linda Vista wants to help. It is targeting second and third graders with limited English skills and those who scored low on standardized tests.

It is creating an after-school program with the help of the San Diego Community Garden Network that will integrate hands-on, tech-friendly gardening and an aquaponics system—a food production cycle where fish and plants sustain each other.

Bayside’s aquaponics tank

The program will integrate the California Common Core standards, encourage students to think critically and reason through problems rather than just through memorization. The students will also engage in hands-on learning that will help them touch, feel and see how these scientific and mathematical processes work, bringing their textbooks to life. Another component of the program will be for the students to write about their experiences, which will teach them how to analyze and explain.

The Little STEMers program will enlist student mentors from other programs at Bayside to help the young kids tend a garden and go online to show what they’ve learned. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

The program is expected to not just help the second and third graders. Eighth-grade girls will serve as mentors in an effort to encourage them to pursue careers in technology, engineering, science and math where women are often scarce.

Bright added that teaching kids how to read is crucial not only for the individuals, but also for the economic health of the region and nation. She hopes the program expands children’s literacy skills and encourages them to apply what they’ve learned in the real world.

Once the program ends, the students will take part in a fall harvest event. Community gardeners, the public and friends and family of the students will be invited to attend and see the progress the students have made.

“The event will allow students to connect their experiences to regional environmentalism and sustainable agriculture, inspiring them to become leaders in sustainability and STEM,” Bright said.

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