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En Garde! At JCPS summer camp kids sharpen reading skills and learn to fence

 A woman in an athletic stands hold a saber out in front of her. She is surrounded by two lines of students in masks and protective gear, and also holding sabers. They are in a classroom.
Jess Clark
Louisville Fencing Center's Dawn Wilson demonstrates for students the proper stance when en garde.

JCPS has made a concerted effort to get more students into summer learning since the pandemic. This year, students in one camp get to read and learn swordplay (with child-friendly sabers).

In a classroom at Goldsmith Elementary School in east Louisville, two lines of students faced off, sabers in hand.

“En garde!” their fencing instructor Dawn Wilson shouted — the command for fencers to raise their weapons and step forward into a ready position.

These 15 students are in the “Literacy &” program in Jefferson County Public Schools, a program designed to focus on reading skills “&” a fun engaging new activity. For two weeks the class is learning to fence. They have an hour-and-a-half lesson each day from Wilson, a coach at the Louisville Fencing Center. Wilson competed on the U.S. National Team for the Women’s Veterans World Fencing Championship in 2017 and 2018.

Wilson circled the room and checked each student’s hand position to make sure it was correct, with the thumb on top.

You’re supposed to “squeeze it like a ketchup packet,” rising third-grader Albri explained from inside her fencing mask.

Thursday’s lesson included instruction on how to parry, or defend, an attack to the head and right flank or arm. Louisville Fencing Center lent the students protective masks, uniforms and practice sabers. Practice sabers are not sharp, and have circular stops on the point.

The students also worked on footwork, which was the hardest part for most of them.

“That’s not an advance, that’s a shuffle!” Wilson admonished the students after they practiced an attack.

“This ain’t the Harlem shuffle, this ain’t somebody’s granny shuffling because they can’t move — this is fencing!”

Wilson showed them again the precise dance-like steps.

The Literacy & program is free, and the district provides transportation and meals. The other half of instruction time is spent reading. In keeping with the fencing theme, the class is reading the book “The Proudest Blue,” by Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympic fencer and the first Muslim American woman to go to the Olympics to represent the U.S.

Their reading teacher Taylor Darst-Kleffner said she’s enjoying her time with the students, who come from schools across the district.

“It’s diverse, so you have students with all these different backgrounds coming,” she said. Many students were able to relate to Muhammad’s book, which is about a Muslim American girl who supports her older sister as she wears a hijab to school for the first time.

Darst-Kleffner said none of her students are Muslim, but they come from many different cultural backgrounds.

“I like it,” Albri said of the book. She said she learned “that if somebody says something mean about you, then don’t listen to them.”

After two weeks learning to fence, the students will swap out with another class learning to DJ.

In addition to Literacy &, JCPS is also running Backpack League, a larger program that’s less specialized. The day includes instruction in core subjects like reading and math, along with a hands-on activity that varies day to day.

There are also a number of camps designed for specific student populations, like teen girls, young men, immigrant students learning English, and students with disabilities.

Since 2019 district leaders have wanted to increase the number of students involved in summer learning programs. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said he believes summer learning gives extra instruction to students who may need more support. Leaders also believe it helps to make up for instructional time students missed out on during the year, either because they were absent or due to challenges accessing remote instruction during the early pandemic.

Pollio has a goal of eventually enrolling 10,000 JCPS students in summer learning — about a tenth of the 96,000 student district.

The district says they’ve “nearly” reached that goal this summer.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

News Youth Reporting
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.