Columbia Public Schools Summer Expeditions program excites and inspires students

The Summer Expeditions commencement ceremony occurred Friday afternoon at Columbia College. The program is designed to give students a taste of what awaits them if they choose to go to college. Fifth-grader William Henderson III dances during his commencement speech at the Summer Expeditions graduation ceremony Friday at Columbia College. ¦  QUINT SMITH


COLUMBIA — At the end of 10-year-old William Henderson III's graduation speech about owning your own education, he demonstrated to everyone in the room his "money dance."

"Ok guys, stand up," Henderson said to his classmates.

The children stood, and then there was a long pause. "Parents, too," Henderson chided.

The rest of the crowd reluctantly stood up as Henderson began to dance, pantomiming the act of brushing bills off his open palm with his other hand. The crowd danced with him, laughing at the silly motions.

"We're all going to be doing this," Henderson said to his fellow graduates, "because we're all going to be successful."

Henderson graduated from the Columbia Public Schools Summer Expeditions program at Columbia College on Friday afternoon. Forty-nine students participated in the program. Henderson said that teachers selected him to give the graduation speech.

The program included four weeks of classes in college preparation and the core content areas — math, science, language arts and social studies. Three weeks took place at Hickman High School, and the last week was hosted by Columbia College to give the students an opportunity to experience college. 

Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent for elementary education, and Pam Spencer, a gifted education teacher at Eugene Field Elementary School, started the Summer Expeditions program for high-achieving minority students in the district.

Students are selected from each elementary school in fourth-grade based on their grades, Missouri Assessment Program scores and attendance and staff recommendations. Students who are selected are then invited back to participate in the program for another two summers. Participants are eligible for scholarships in the future if they decide they want to attend Columbia College.

The students who are eligible are either minorities or qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Free and reduced-price lunch is what the district uses to measure poverty in the district. Ninety-five percent of the program is geared toward academics, while 5 percent is fun activities, according to Jay Wiltshire, the program coordinator and a home school communicator at Blue Ridge Elementary School.

"We believe the best way to effectively engage minority students or those from families facing economic challenges is to approach them at a young age," Wiltshire said.

On Friday, the students experienced what it was like to graduate from college and received certificates of completion by Terry Smith, dean for academic affairs at Columbia College. 

The best part of the program for Wiltshire is seeing all the students' families show up for support. 

"We all want to see these kids succeed," Wiltshire said.

For Ema Higgins, 9, the most rewarding part was what she learned during the program. 

"It helped us believe in ourselves to make us stronger," Higgins said.

Some of her favorite activities were the multiplication math games, dodge ball and art class, where she got to make whatever she wanted.

"When I grow up I want to be a singer," Higgins said, "but my back-up plan is to be a teacher. 

Cyndy White likes how the program inspires her 11-year-old son, Daniel. This is Daniel's second year doing the program.

Daniel wishes to be a veterinarian when he grows up, so he was glad when veterinary science was one of the topics in class. Daniel wasn't as excited about ballet, his mother said.

"It opens up their appetite to do things they typically wouldn't have chosen to do," White said. "But since it's part of the curriculum, it's great."

Henderson likes the Summer Expeditions program because it helps him and the other students mature into adults. This summer is his second in the program, he said.

"We get to do a lot of stuff other kids don't in the summer," Henderson said.

If he's not in the NBA, Henderson said he wants to study culinary arts.

Superintendent Chris Belcher gave the students encouragement during the graduation ceremony.

"We believe in you," Belcher told the students. "If you can believe in yourself you can change the world."

Supervising editor is Shaina Cavazos.