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When Valerie Garcia was first encouraged to attend Transitions summer school program for kids about to enter middle school in the Sonoma Valley School District, she thought she was in trouble.

"I thought it was going to be punishment, but it wasn't actually a punishment," said the recent graduate of Flowery Elementary School.

Garcia was among the 80 students hand-selected by teachers as having struggled in elementary school and encouraged to attend the voluntary Transitions summer school program geared toward giving incoming sixth-graders a boost before middle school.

That's the stick. The carrot: a sneak peek at campus life and the array of field trips to places like the Tech Museum and Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose and Point Reyes in Marin County.

"Our teacher said we needed help because we had problems with all these things. He said it was a good opportunity," Garcia said.

Sonoma Valley School District is in its third year of offering the voluntary Transitions summer programs for incoming sixth-graders and graduating eighth-graders heading to high school. Summer programs also are available for students needing a head start on algebra, a reading academy for third-graders and a kindergarten preparation program.

The jump-start programs for struggling students are crucial for recharging kids' confidence before the move from elementary to middle and middle to high school, said Lynn Fitzpatrick, director of curriculum for the district.

"The whole idea is to capture these kids who we could lose," she said. "They are not doing well on the (California Standards Test), are generally not earning passing grades, but the idea is to capture these kids and get them re-engaged with the schools they are going to."

In a time of school district budget cuts that have decimated summer-school programs, donors have stepped up to augment traditional summer-school curriculum with extensive field trips and gardening programs, said Laura Zimmerman, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.

The education foundation has teamed with the Sonoma Valley Fund and its donors to contribute more than $75,800 for 2012 summer programs, according to Zimmerman.

"When you think about the numbers of kids who have nothing to do, these kids are having summer learning taking place because of all of the community investment," she said.

Pat Reed, a middle school computers and math teacher, said she works to keep the assignments challenging but not overwhelming. Confidence is key for kids who have struggled in the past, she said.

"It gives them a lot of pride and it helps them to see that they can contribute to the classroom conversation," she said.

Science teacher Shirley Austin-Peeke said she isn't trying to cram a year's worth of periodic tables or scientific theory into her students' heads. Instead, she's focusing on key concepts about both science and navigating middle school -- academically and organizationally.

"You can't just say 'I'm going to teach them everything they need to know about this.' You just have to focus in on key skills," she said. "They get used to the routine; they think 'I can do this.' "

Cristian Hernandez had a very practical reason for attending the summer program at Adele Harrison Middle School -- campus reconnaissance.

"I'm getting to know the school better, so when I come here, I won't get lost," he said.

Johnathan Hernandez, who attended Sassarini Elementary, said the program has helped him get his academic world organized. He's taking notes, being mindful of paperwork and keeping on top of what he needs to turn in.

"I knew I wasn't a really good student and I wanted to improve," he said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.

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