Cary Academy is committed to ensuring that our students are thoughtful, socially conscious, and engaged members of their communities. But what does social responsibility and meaningful community engagement look like from a larger institutional perspective?
Two years ago, the decision to reimagine our public summer camp experience–one that had grown increasingly untenable— opened an exciting opportunity for CA’s leadership to explore how CA could increase its local impact.
“Given the exponential growth of local summer offerings in recent years, it didn’t feel like our program was adding value to the wider community in the way that it used to,” explains Head of School Mike Ehrhardt. “Instead, we wanted to think about how we could be a better community partner by opening our campus to organizations and populations that wouldn’t otherwise have access to the quality of education that we provide.”
To that end, CA leadership sought out partnerships with three established youth-serving organizations—The Dream Academy, LatinxEd, and The Daniel Center for Math and Science—all broadly dedicated to improving learning outcomes for underserved students. Working in close collaboration with each organization’s leadership for over a year, they began envisioning together what an impactful summer enrichment experience at CA might look like for their respective constituents.
A generous sponsorship from tech-giant Lenovo—the result of a business partnership initiated by the PTAA— helped turn that vision into reality. The sponsorship not only helped to defray the costs of the programs, but it also supplied ThinkPad Yoga laptops and Mirage Solo virtual reality headsets that elevated the experience for students that might not otherwise have regular access to state-ofthe-art technology in the classroom.
As a result, more than 100 students from across North Carolina enjoyed a transformative educational experience that offered a taste of the best that CA has to offer, including access to our world-class faculty and facilities coupled with immersive experiential curricula specifically tailored to meet their needs. Across the three programs, students engaged in community-building, cultural exploration, leadership development, and ample hands-on, technology-enhanced STEM and humanities projects.
Head of School Mike Ehrhardt hopes the experiences will spark something larger. “Each of our partner organizations have meaningful, long-term relationships with their students,” he explains.
“They understand and represent their needs, and they’ve built the kind of support networks and supplementary programming that can elevate a CA summer experience into more than just a one-off experience for their kids. It translates to a greater impact.”
PARTNER SPOTLIGHT: LATINXED’S SOMOS CAROLINA
Ricky Hurtado and Elaine Townsend Utin, Co-Founders and Co-Executive Directors of LatinxEd—a nonprofit dedicated to breaking down barriers to educational opportunities for Latinx students in North Carolina—witnessed firsthand the powerful impact of a partnership with CA.
LatinxEd’s CA summer program engaged middle-school-aged participants from their flagship Somos Carolina program in an exploration of cultural identity through digital storytelling. Students dug into their family histories supported by Somos Carolina staff, CA’s Video Studio Manager Steven O’Neill, and tech-support volunteers from Lenovo. They performed research; donned VR headsets for first-person explorations of their parents’ home countries; explored the ins and outs of successful storytelling; and developed technical and video production skills as they filmed and edited their final digital stories.
It’s a project that addresses a pressing need within the Latinx community, says Townsend Utin. “There are gaps in mainstream curriculum regarding Latinx history, particularly as it relates to Latinx history in the South. Students must piece it together for themselves as they try to figure out who they are and grasp how their culture fits within their larger community… In sharing information about their histories, they are defining in real-time what it means to be Latinx in the South; they are adding meaning to those definitions together; and finding solidarity across their communities.”
“Many of our students had expressed concern about the negative messaging they hear about being Latinx or about being part of immigrant families,” continues Hurtado. “After their work at CA, they can better articulate their own latinidad, their sense of self. They’ve developed the confidence—the resiliency within themselves—to be able to say ‘no’ to those narratives, to say ‘I know where I come from and I’m proud of it.’”
For O’Neill—who witnessed both the technical and personal growth of the participants—it was a rewarding teaching and learning experience. He credits the strong collaborative partnership forged with his co-teacher, Somos Carolina Program Coordinator Gloribel Vanegas, for helping to create a flexible learning space that was responsive to the students’ needs, both emotional and academic, and allowed them to thrive. Vanegas provided bilingual classroom support and was instrumental in building a much-needed sense of comfort, community, and trust that allowed O’Neill’s expertise take hold.
“WE LEARNED SO MUCH FROM THE COLLABORATION, FROM THE EXPERTISE OF CA FACULTY. WE’RE THANKFUL FOR THE CONSISTENCY, FOR THE ENCOURAGEMENT, AND THE ADVICE OF CA’S LEADERSHIP.”
—ELAINE TOWNSEND UTIN
“These kids identify in much different ways than I did as a child; they’ve been told who they are,” says O’Neill. “That was eye-opening for me; it shaped how I engaged with the class. I quickly realized that I had to let the students lead, to let them interact with me on their terms. Working with Gloribel to build their trust—and doing so without any assumption that they would, or would want to, trust me—was important.”
Beyond being a powerful learning experience for students and CA faculty alike, Hurtado says that the summer program also helped lay the foundation for the important work that lies ahead for LatinxEd. “CA offered an incredible opportunity for our students to move away from the familiar and to get outside of their comfort zones, but to do so within the comfort of their peers. It gave them space to dream,” says Hurtado.
“It also set the foundation that we need to work with these students longterm,” he continues. “We were able to build the trust, the community, and the relationships that will allow us to dig in deeper on those bigger academic and college access outcomes once they get to high school.”
And to what does Townsend Utin and Hurtado credit the program’s success? A genuine, collaborative, and creative partnership with CA built on mutual trust and a shared vision, one in which each partner honored and played to the others’ strengths and expertise and learned from one another.
Hurtado explains: “CA provided an incredible blank slate, a wealth of opportunities and expertise, and used it to enhance our organization’s goals, rather than impose their own. That’s huge for creating a culturally competent space; it made this an incredible opportunity for our students and our organization.”
“It really felt like two powerful communities coming together to pull this off,” agrees Townsend Utin. “We learned so much from the collaboration, from the expertise of CA faculty. We’re thankful for the consistency, for the encouragement, and the advice of CA’s leadership. We’re ready to take those lessons learned from last summer and move forward. I feel like this partnership makes it possible to dream big in service to our community.”