Boys & Girls Club class equips learning disabled students with computer skills

By Alana Melanson
Sentinel & Enterprise

LEOMINSTER — Last school year, Andrew Emery, a student at the Caldwell Alternative School in Fitchburg, was able to make his own video games in a computer programming class offered at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster.

This time around, Emery, 17, of Fitchburg, is assisting his fellow students who are new at computer science, and learning along the way.

“It’s useful because I do want to get into a graphics program, so this is a fun way to do it at school,” Emery said Thursday.

The class is funded by a grant from the Computer Science Collaboration Project through its Engaging Youth with Disabilities program. According to Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Donata Martin, the two installments equaling $4,500 were awarded to a collaboration of the club, the Caldwell School and Fitchburg State University.

Before last year, Caldwell students had little interaction with the club except for using its gymnasium for physical education, and Martin felt the grant would be a great way to get them more involved.

“I like to encourage career exploration in the many programs we offer and including FSU students to be mentors and enlisting the assistance the professors was met with enthusiasm by FSU,” she said.

Caldwell Alternative School is a member of the FLLAC Educational Collaborative, which provides special education for students who don’t do well in traditional public school settings. FLLAC stands for Fitchburg, Leominster, Lancaster and Clinton — the original, organizing school districts — but now there are a total of 11 school districts that have joined, according to Principal Gary MacCallum.

Caldwell provides special education services for about 40 middle and high school age students with specific learning disabilities, social-emotional and behavioral concerns. They stay at the school either until they have caught up enough to rejoin a traditional school setting, until graduation, or until they age out of the education system at 22, MacCallum said. What they receive is a smaller environment, more individual attention, more intensive and directed instruction “and accommodation of whatever the needs are of the students that come in,” he said.

Unfortunately, MacCallum said, many of the kids who come into the school don’t see themselves as college material and have very low confidence in their abilities, and some have been turned off to the learning process altogether because of past classroom experiences. A program like this exposes them to skills that could lead to a future career, he said. “I think that if they can get successes on opportunities like this, it may expand their thinking that, ‘Yeah, maybe I could go to college, and maybe I could have a career,'” MacCallum said.

“A lot of them doubt their own ability to be successful in doing computer programming,” said Boys & Girls Club Program Instructor Luci Arel. “And then they find that it’s not as intimidating as they thought it would be.”

This week, Arel was working with students in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology program called Scratch, in which they were able to animate characters, change backgrounds and create scripted stories or games either with sound text.

Timothy Beauregard, 16, of Fitchburg, was eager to learn the computer skills for more practical matters, while Sandra Soto, 17, of Leominster, was happy to be able to express her creative side as she created stories about knights and princes with castle backgrounds.

FSU freshman computer science student Cristina Loureiro, 19, of Provincetown, was enjoying being able to help the students while doing something she is learning herself.

“I get to know how they learn, their different learning styles and what their pace of learning is, too, so I can help focus and redirect them,” she said.