Food for thought
New project to provide third grade students with opportunities to succeed
What Bob Barnes did with The Children’s Hunger Project was almost a miracle. The West Melbourne resident is hoping for similar results with his latest project, Aspiration Academy.
While the hunger project feeds the bodies of disadvantaged kids, the academy will feed their minds.
What is unique about Barnes’ new nonprofit is its target audience, for the new project is aimed at students performing above their grade level.
“During the years of running The Children’s Hunger Project, I came to realize that there are two keys to a child’s success in life: zip code and opportunity,” Barnes said. “Research demonstrates that a family’s income has a significant effect on a child’s education level. The zip code in which a child is born is often a predictor of future success or failure in school and life.”
The children of Aspiration Academy will come from some of the county’s most financially strapped zip codes. Barnes can’t change where the kids live, but he aims to provide them with opportunities to thrive.
The program, which starts in January with third graders at University Park Elementary in Melbourne, is anticipated to expand to other Title I schools in the county and rather quickly it should follow the path of The Children’s Hunger Project. It focuses on children not receiving the attention they need.
“You have kids performing at grade level and those struggling below grade level, and there is extra attention given to them,” Barnes said. “You have students who are very good at athletics and they are getting attention.”
EXTRA PROGRAMS HELP
On the other hand, students who perform above grade level could use the extra help to reach their potential, yet it is often assumed they don’t need it. They can make it on their own. They can succeed without help.
No, they can’t, Barnes believes.
“They don’t lack the talent to succeed, but they lack the opportunity to succeed,” he said.
Low-income families do not have the resources to provide the cultural and learning opportunities enjoyed by middle-class and wealthy families. It’s easy for children in these situations to lose interest in learning.
“It sounds counterintuitive, but these children get bored easily and are more likely to get into trouble, becoming the class clown or the troublemaker,” Barnes said. “Of high school dropouts, up to 30 percent of them have been identified as gifted students.”
Barnes, who has great respect for Brevard Public Schools, believes the school system is operating with so many challenges that it cannot direct additional resources toward these students.
“No public school is probably capable of dealing with these children,” he said.
Using an after-school program format and weekend field trips, Aspiration Academy will provide additional programs to enhance the curriculum. Children can participate in more than one of these “societies” to expand the learning experience. The History Society, for example, will welcome speakers from local African American or Hispanic community groups to relate their stories and ultimate success. The Dream Society will help children conceptualize their dreams for the future, as well as encourage them in reading and math, necessary for the fulfillment of their dreams. The Helping Hand Society will provide age-appropriate projects so students can find joy in helping others.
Deborah Kofkin, the academy’s director of education, is enlisting volunteers to help.
“My biggest thing is building relationships; we need to let these children know they are important,” said Kofkin, who taught in Brevard Public Schools for 30 years. “We all remember the teachers who took an interest in us.”
MENTORS MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The program is aimed at third graders for a very important reason.
“At this age, they are sponges ready to absorb,” Kofkin said.
University Park principal Ana Diaz knows what a difference a little extra attention can bring. Her parents, who are from the Dominican Republic, struggled to keep their family fed and housed and had no time to spare. Fortunately, adult mentors helped her succeed.
“I was myself one of those kids who was inspired by one of those adults,” Diaz said.
Diaz sees reaching these kids as critical.
“As a community, we are called to provide that opportunity,” she said.
Barnes hopes to draw mentors from a wide range of careers, from astronauts to musicians. Aaron Collins, founder and artistic director of the Space Coast Symphony Orchestra, is on board to bring musicians to the program.
“There were two reasons we decided to partner with Aspiration Academy,” Collins said.
“First, my friendship and admiration of Bob Barnes, founder of The Children’s Hunger Project. We’ve been friends and collaborators for over 10 years. He’s done so much for our community, particularly children, and his track record is phenomenal.
“Secondly, I’m equally passionate about finding ways to reach and connect with children. To me, it’s the most important work an orchestra can do. Our shared goal is to get children excited about music and the arts. It’s a win-win for both organizations.”
If anyone can make Aspiration Academy succeed, it’s Barnes. The 81-year-old spends 50 to 60 hours, seven days a week, writing letters and grant proposals and getting the word out to the community. He is footing the bills for the academy primarily out of his own pocket.
“Bob can achieve any goal he wants,” said Cheryl Cominsky, executive director of The Children’s Hunger Project.
“His insight and determination got our mission started on a small scale, which paved the way for the expansion of our program from one school serving 27 students to our current 50 plus schools serving over 3,500 students.
“His passion for the education and well-being of our children is contagious. He has often said that we’ve been able to accomplish so much at The Children’s Hunger Project because we are ‘guided by angels’…he is one of those angels.”
For Barnes, Aspiration Academy is a natural progression from The Children’s Hunger Project.
“If we can address the nutrition and education of children, we can change the world,” he said.
Aspiration Academy welcomes volunteers and tax-deductible donations. Visit aspirationacademy.org for more information.
Maria is a prolific writer and proofer for Space Coast Living and an adjunct professor at Florida Institute of Technology’s Nathan M. Bisk College of Business. When not writing, teaching or traveling, she can be found waging a one-woman war against her lawn and futilely attempting to maintain order among the chaos of a pack of extremely clueless wirehair dachshunds and an angst-driven basset hound.