Josias Ordonez reacts before getting his diploma during the commencement ceremony for the RISE Program on Friday, July 14, 2017 at Fair Street School. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

RISE Program Celebrates 120 Student Participants in Commencement Ceremony

Jul 10, 2017
Kristen Bowman

Children in the Real Interactive Summer Learning Experience, RISE, program graduated Friday, July 14, at Fair Street International Academy among friends, family and their summer camp teachers.

“It has been an absolute pleasure to work with these students the last six weeks,” said Chelsey Brown, 2016 graduate of Brenau University Women’s College and one of the leads of the RISE Program. “We hope everything we have done here will aid them throughout the school year.”

The RISE program – which targets summer learning loss in children beginning at age 7 – from its inception involved community partners in Gainesville and Hall County, including the housing authority, Brenau University, Gainesville City Schools and United Way of Hall County. More than 120 students benefited from this year’s program, scheduled to run from June 5 to July 14.

“These kids are hard workers,” said Makayla Angel, 2017 graduate of the Women’s College and RISE teacher. “They often are translators for their parents, and sometimes they don’t get enough individual attention. I wanted to bring fun into learning, but also show them they have a safe place to be in the summer.”

The commencement ceremony Friday showcased the children in green caps and gowns to receive certificates and a career fair afterward for the children and their families. The fair was made possible by a number of community partners including Georgia Mountains Regional Commission and the Georgia Mountain Food Bank, which offered free bags of food to families, including fresh fruit and vegetables, boxed goods and even a few personal care items.

Brenau research that tracked previous student progress shows that RISE – with its innovative and interactive programming as well as its emphasis on health, nutrition and cultural awareness – has been effective in reducing summer learning loss among children. Pre- and post-testing for participants demonstrate significant improvement in math and reading.

“Not only are these kids going to excel in the classroom, but I can’t wait to see where they go in 10, 15 years,” Angel said.

With the goal of exposing the children to educational and active field trips, they travel each Friday to a different destination, according to Maria Calkins from the housing authority.

“After each field trip, the students continue to Frances Meadows Aquatic Center for swimming activities,” Calkins said. “By having this program in their own community, participants learn to use resources immediately available to develop their minds and bodies.”

The RISE dream began as a question tossed out to a focus group of Brenau University students by William Lightfoot, then dean of the School of Business & Mass Communications at Brenau. Lightfoot asked what could be done to help local, lower-income kids with education and hunger. His students at the time – a mix of occupational therapy, business and education students – developed the idea for a turnkey, community-run program involving several social nonprofit government and nongovernment service organizations and educational institutions to combat summer learning loss in elementary school students.

The students presented their idea in a national competition for social entrepreneurship at an Appalachian Ideas Network conference in Kentucky and won the competition. With the help of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation, which supports the Appalachian Ideas Network, they came back to Gainesville and got to work implementing it.

RISE still involves Brenau participation through the College of Education, but its administration now has been handed off to an executive committee – comprising representatives from the university and the Gainesville Housing Authority – working in concert with a community-wide advisory board.

For information about supporting the RISE program, contact Matt Thomas, vice president for external relations, at 770-718-5309 or