By Jerry Valdez
In the vast rural and agricultural San Joaquin area of the Central Valley of California you will find the unique SAM. Academy (Science, Art & Music), a community-based ”maker” program located in downtown Sanger, California. The SAM Academy houses a music studio, a STEM Workshop with ample space for up to 40 students at a time, and a mobile STEM program that travels to schools in isolated rural communities. Programs within this youth-focused non-profit are for free or low-cost, creating opportunities for underserved youth to tinker, make, and explore their world through activities embedded with the arts, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEAM). Bins and boxes of wood, plastics, cardboard, and a large variety of materials are available. Tools adorn the walls, hanging on pegboard, and are also stored in rolling tool chests. Scissors, pencils, pens, rulers, glues, and assorted paper are always available to support the ‘making’ of simple to complex projects. Aquariums and life science artifacts are visible throughout and are part of the learning environment. The music studio is busy every day with students streaming in for voice, piano, guitar, or drum lessons. The art studio has become a high-energy space of creativity and innovation for elementary, middle, and high school youth. The environment and culture of the spaces found within have become so inviting and motivating that children immerse themselves with a passion for learning with each new project, activity, or exhibit. Many have become regular participants, and parents visit often to observe or even work alongside their children.
Since opening six years ago in downtown Sanger, SAM Academy has provided after-school, weekend, spring, winter, and summer programming to Sanger youth and families through non-traditional learning environments and immerses surrounding communities with opportunities for youth and children’s imaginations, aspirations, and knowledge-fed creativity to soar, and establish within them developmental assets and identities. These very poor communities previously had no opportunities like this for their children. SAM Academy has received awards, and programs within have been acknowledged as having criteria that identify it as an effective Positive Youth Development (PYD), gang and drug prevention education, and educational enrichment program. In addition, they sponsor Scouts and parent education programs integrated throughout core programs that, together with partner organizations, have become a ‘community within a community’. This year more than 5,000 youth (many are repeaters) have participated in the science workshop drop-in program, summer camps, high school mentor workshops, music studio, and art studio. Here’s some specifics on two of these programs:
Capacity Building and Local Role Models: Staff are representative of the community they serve and are positive role models for the youth. Several youth from the high school mentor program have already returned after graduating from college or universities as teachers, counselors, and technicians to assist with programs. Several high school mentors also work with us after high school graduation as their college and/or technical school schedules allow. One SAM Academy Board member is a nationally recognized gang prevention expert and is assisting with our Gang/Drug prevention program design and implementation. Another is a local physician and works with parents on drug abuse and nutritional advice.
Becoming a Legacy Program: More than 140 Sanger High School and Kings River High School students have joined the High School Mentors Cohort over the last six years and 25 are currently in the program and continue to meet every Saturday and vacation days to volunteer/intern and work on their projects, learn job skills and mentoring strategies, mentor younger students, and attend workshops.
Jerry Valdez is the executive director of the SAM Academy