Montgomery’s Brain Forest Summer Academy Reaffirms Learning Can Be Fun, Culturally Relevant, and Intentional

By Shelton Bowens

Several weeks ago I was asked to go visit “the Brain Forest” with one of my coworkers. My initial thought was we were going to a museum that had an annual summer exhibit centered around education in some way.

As a millennial, I considered googling before arriving, but I decided just to wait and let my mind wonder during the car ride. Upon arriving at George Washington Carver High School, I noticed high schoolers around the campus, but I did not immediately see anything resembling a museum or exhibit.

Then, to my surprise, as we walked around a corner I came upon a crowd of multi-aged kids who were active participants in their education. The students were so engaged within the hallways and classrooms of Carver High, they hummed like a beehive full of working bees.

At that moment, I realized this wasn’t a museum, but a hub of teaching and learning. As students participated in a math gallery walk, I had the opportunity to talk with a few girls and boys about their math targets. I asked some of them to explain in detail their answers to the math challenges before them, and I was greatly impressed.

In fact, I was excited. What I saw made it clear that students in Alabama are growing and achieving. We may not be where we want to be in every classroom and school, but we are far from where we used to be. The Brain Forest reaffirmed in my heart that learning can be fun, culturally relevant, and intentional EVERY DAY!

What the Brain Forest is all about

I had the chance to interview Dillon Nettles, the Executive Programs and Outreach Director of the Montgomery Education Foundation. In a brief synopsis he described the Brain Forest Summer Learning Academy as “a very special program because it creates an environment where everyone is learning and growing together.”

This summer, he told me, 260 students are participating in the program, supported by 14 motivated teachers and classroom assistants who are experiencing a meaningful professional learning opportunity. “In the Brain Forest,” Dillon explained, “we all step outside of our comfort zone and encourage every child to become a leader of their own learning.”

The director went on to say: “Our goal in the five week program is to prevent the ‘summer slide’ which regresses students by months in the short time they are out of school. We also want our students to have a fun summer where they are not only doing academic work but being exposed to new things.”

What happens in the Brain Forest

The full day program serves rising 4th, 5th and 6th grade students who are enrolled in the Montgomery Public Schools. It is provided at no cost to participating families.

Students participate in mornings of hands-on academic learning and afternoons of engaging enrichment activities including swimming, horseback riding, kayaking and other physical activities. There are also field trips to sites around the city such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the WSFA News Studios. Old Alabama Town and much more.

“We call this our ‘Summer of Impact’,” Dillon told me, “because while we know summer learning is crucial to every child, there are particular students who need to reinforce their math and reading skills before starting a new school year.”

The payoff? “Our students are more confident and prepared to learn when they start school in August and we oftentimes hear from their parents about the positive differences they notice in their children after a summer in the Brain Forest.” A 2015 study found that participating students demonstrated average gains of 2-3 months in both reading and math.

Dillon Nettles’ pride in the 6-year-old program’s success is apparent. “To know that in five weeks, our talented staff and students achieve so much just proves what our kids are truly capable of accomplishing in a full school year. Brain Forest is living proof of our MEF motto: Our kids can!

Bridging gaps and enriching lives

One of the most fascinating elements of this program is that 85% of its students are low-incomed, which means Brain Forest is reaching into the city’s high-needs communities to help bridge the gaps in opportunity and achievement. Growing up as a low-incomed student, I would have been ecstatic to participate in such a summer program.

Brain Forest is such a hot commodity that it has a wait list of over 100 students, which shows it has community impact and community support. The need is great. As one rising sixth grader mentioned to me during a conversation, “I have been coming to Brain Forest for three years! I have no idea what I’m going to do next year. I may sneak back!”

Brain Forest is such a powerful education model that it would be impossible to say all the great things they are doing within this blog, so I encourage you to research the program, as well as seek ways to become involved!

Our students should always be the focus of decisions regarding education. Brain Forest has reshaped my way of thinking concerning student-centered activities. It is evident that rote instruction is not the only way – or the best way – our students can learn. Following this experience, it is my charge to educators and policy makers across Alabama and around the world to always make decisions in the best interests of our students.

Student success is the ultimate goal in all matters of education. Our children – our future leaders, adult citizens, workers, entrepreneurs – need to be everybody’s special interest.

ALSO SEE: Cathy Gassenheimer’s post about
her Summer 2017 visit to the Brain Forest.

Shelton Bowens is a 2018 summer intern at the A+ Education Partnership and the 7th grade science teacher at LM Smith Middle School in Birmingham City. He is a native of Oglethorpe, Georgia and a graduate of Macon County High School and Savannah State University, where he earned a BS degree in Biology.

Shelton entered teaching through the Teach for America program and believes in the TFA mission statement that “one day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”