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EXCEL: Fun, messy, colorful summer school classes

Saturday, July 14th, 2012 | Posted by | no responses
Hannah Gamez, 11, attaches a bottom to her vessel during a Summer Clay Studio class at SSU. (Beth Schlanker / PD)

By MARIE THOMAS McNAUGHTON / Towns Correspondent

Do you remember the years before budget cuts and school closures, when summer school in the middle grades could mean fun, exciting, messy classes that weren’t often offered during the school year?

Laughter-filled, colorful, even a bit anarchic, those classes still exist as Sonoma State University’s EXCEL for Youth summer workshops.

They’re spread widely over the college campus, from Ives Hall for comedy performance to the Technology High School robotics lab in Salazar to the Art Building for Italian street painting.

In 1,200 classes over 30 summers, 20,000 students have experimented freely with “ideas and materials,” says Alison Marks, program director and herself a nationally recognized artist.

Just this week students entering grades four to nine flitted about in costumes and cameras for Digital Filmmaking. Future scientists littered a field with their water bottle rockets and constructed electronic machinery in the Technology High School robotics classroom.

The Crime Scene Investigation class analyzed blood splatter and footprints, while potters in the Ceramic Studio learned to control clay and wheel simultaneously.

Also this month, youngsters from Santa Rosa sister city JeJu, Korea, will experience and provide a cross-cultural opportunity as they share the EXCEL classrooms with local students.

Cousins Ilona Slutsker, 14, left, and Eden Luvishis, 11, work on their vessels as part of an EXCEL class.

As a program within SSU’s School of Extended Learning, EXCEL has an incentive to help fourth- through ninth-graders see themselves as future college students and life-long learners, especially those for whom higher education is not a family expectation.

The teaching staff includes professionals from a variety of specialties. SSU faculty and teachers from Bay Area school districts also design classes to capitalize on students’ interest, creativity and curiosity.

Imagine conducting a cross examination or testifying in a mock trial or helping Cotati veterinarian Fred Groverman examine an animal in the field.

“It’s more about the process than specific outcomes,” note” said Marks, “though the product can be very impressive.”

In the June sessions, students built a pee-wee golf course Marks called “a Rube Goldberg contraption on steroids.”

Of the 50 workshops offered, students can take a maximum of six per summer. Most families participate over several years to enjoy the full range of classes or even to repeat favorite classes with friends and siblings.

Many teachers also return annually, sometimes with new workshops based on student suggestions, like this summer’s Story Hunters, a world myth and literature class.

Ceramics instructor Nancy Morgan shows students how to attach a vessel’s bottom during Summer Clay Studio. Students, from left, are Katie DeBara, 10, Belle Ehrmantraut, 10, and Hannah Gamez, 11.


Marks’ involvement started in 1996 when her son enrolled. Seriously enthused by the experience and already an art teacher, she taught classes in 1998 and 1999.

“It’s a pleasure to follow the children’s development, inspiring them to become creative people,” she said. “EXCEL has been a great opportunity to transmit what I know to kids who are excited to learn.”

She became program director in 2003 and invited former students to return as teaching assistants.

Volunteer William Humphreys, 15, started this week as a T.A. for the two-week iMovie classes, which he describes as “running around the room for six hours,” helping the younger kids stay focused.

He took EXCEL technology classes for four summers and recommended EXCEL as the only extra-curricular program he has attended (and has been to quite a few) that manages to be properly “organized and yet amazingly fun.”

Most, he said, err on the side of organization at the expense of creativity, or “are really loose, resulting in mayhem.”

At EXCEL, he said poignantly, “everyone signs up for what they really want to do, and that’s exactly what they get to do.”

Six classes for the week of July 23-27 were still available as of July 10:

For kids going into grades 4-6 — Metal Jewelry, Crash and Burn Chemistry, Creative Cartooning, Mad Scientist Laboratory.

For grades 5-8 — Checkmate Chess for Kids .

For grades 6-9 — Industrial Scrap Magic, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

EXCEL classes are open to students throughout Sonoma County. Registration materials go out each March for the 15- and 30-hour workshops held in June and July. Fees range from $159 to $186 for 15 hours, $321 to $352 for 30 hours.

Classes fill up fast and scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Funding comes from the Sonoma County Foundation, anonymous and small individual donors, grants and the SSU Alumni Association. For more information about EXCEL, visit sonoma.edu/exed/excel or call 664-2394.

See for yourself

Launched 30 years ago with a handful of classes, SSU’s EXCEL for Youth summer program has grown to 50 sections over three sessions. To celebrate, the University Library Art Gallery is hosting a free retrospective exhibition through July 27, with photos, documentary footage and examples of class work from 1982 to 2012.

The gallery is open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, until 5 p.m. Friday. A $2.50 parking permit is required. The library is located on campus at 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park.

More info: library.sonoma.edu/about/gallery.html.


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Nick Walden is our Cotati and Penngrove correspondent.
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