8th Grade Academy: Building a Community of Leaders

It was a typical afternoon at our Skyline Middle School program as the familiar group of kids hurried into the cafeteria at the end of the school day. They grabbed a snack and a drink before taking their seats at a lunchroom table, each with one of our Youth Leaders at the head. The bond between leaders and students is obvious as kids excitedly wave at their youth leaders and everyone starts to chat about their day.

Surprisingly, even after a full day of school, every student seemed bright-eyed and eager for an afternoon with On the Road Collaborative.

Sitting and watching this scene unfold, there’s no denying that this room was full of excitement and enormous potential. From today’s view, with more than 50 kids packed into that lunchroom, it’s hard to believe that On the Road started as a small after-school program in 2015. Now in our fifth year, we’ve served more than 500 students with our after-school learning opportunities.

Eamon, Michael, and Syrinus, On the Road youth pose for a photo in their school library

Among these students are three eighth graders, Eamon, Michael, and Syrinus, who have been with us since they entered middle school in sixth grade.

“The first year I tried it, I liked it—everything about it,” said Eamon, a social and energetic eighth grader, explaining why he’s decided to continue with On the Road throughout his entire middle school career. He went on to explain how he’s appreciated a space to do homework and learn new things, but that what he loves most is the community.

“I love being able to hang out and socialize and meet new people,” he said excitedly.

This focus on building a community by forming meaningful relationships was imbedded in the structure of On the Road Collaborative. In order to truly serve our students and address the 6,000 hour learning gap experienced by underprivileged students in middle and high school—which is often a result from a lack of out-of-school learning opportunities—we knew we needed to build an after-school program that provided ongoing opportunities for students to connect with caring adults, potential careers, and each other.

In order to provide these in-depth learning opportunities, we’ve created an unparalleled after-school program, led by program coordinators and youth leaders. Within these programs, we’ve incorporated unique, hands-on learning experiences for students through our Career Enrichment Courses: our 10-week long learning classes, taught by Community Teachers, that provide an in-depth look and hands-on experience in a chosen career or trade.

Eamon poses for a photo in his school library

“What these Career Enrichment Classes do is give us a taste of how it would feel to work in that job,” Eamon explained.

“And for those classes that you like,” added Michael, a soft-spoken but friendly student, “…if you put in all the work, then you can possibly make your own living out of it when you get older!”

And this is why we believe the work we do is so important, because without the opportunities we are able to provide, many of our students wouldn’t be thinking about their future in such an optimistic way.

“Middle-school-aged students are eager for relevant, hands-on learning experiences in topics of interest, if given the opportunity,” Our Founder and President Brent Holsinger explains. “On the Road is designed with this in mind and allows youth to try out a ton of different career paths in a real way that helps them figure out what they want to do in their future.”

For example, Michael and Eamon both loved being a chef as part of the Emerging Chefs program.

“You learn how to cook, how to handle knives properly, how to measure, how to read recipes,” Eamon said of the program, which he took with Michael last year. “It teaches you the fundamental skills of cooking, because later in life, you’re going to need that.”

Michael shared that after he finished Emerging Chefs, he cooked a meal for his dad, who was quite impressed. It sparked a conversation about Michael possibly owning his own restaurant one day.

Michael poses for a photo in his school library

These real-world skills, such as learning how to cook, are vitally important, but we know the true difference we’re making comes from the personal growth students experience and the confidence they gain—in themselves and their future.

“[These programs] help us build up confidence and perseverance,” Eamon explained.

The middle school students who have been with On the Road for several years, just like Eamon, recognize a difference in themselves already, especially as their responsibilities increase and they take on more of a leadership role in the program when entering 8th Grade Academy.

“8th Grade Academy is about building leadership skills, communication skills, and how to work together with people,” Eamon said.

“I think you learn those things over the years by being in this program,” added Syrinus, a thoughtful and kind eight grader, in agreement. “It helps you get up to that higher level of being a leader and actually doing things you’ve never done before.”
Brent said this is exactly why 8th Grade Academy was created as a separate program.

“8th Grade Academy started as a way to differentiate our middle school program and provide increased opportunities for our youth as they prepare to transition to the more rigorous and independent high school experience,” he said.

And our eighth graders are already thinking about this transition.

“In high school we get a lot more freedom, but we also get a lot more responsibility,” Eamon recognized. “We build teamwork and cooperation here [at On the Road], and we’re going to need those skills [in high school].

As these three continue their final year in middle school, they said they’re looking forward to continuing their current role as leaders and eventually being a part of the On the Road’s high-school program.

“The skills I’ve gained, such as leadership—it will accumulate, from 6th through 12th grade,” Eamon said reflecting on his years with On the Road and the growth that’s yet to come.

Syrinus poses for a photo in her school library

Syrinus agreed and said she’s already learned so many lessons that will continue to help her with her next steps.

“The thing I’ve learned with On the Road that will help me the most is not to give up on yourself and always try new things,” she added.

Michael nodded and said he’s seen himself grow already, too, and knows that as a result, he’s a better student overall.

“If it helps us out this much right now,” he said, “I can only imagine how much it’s going to help us out in high school.”

On the Road Collaborative provides students like Eamon, Michael, and Syrinus with amazing out-of-school learning opportunities so that, together, we can eliminate the 6,000 learning gap and help all of our students fulfill their promise and be on the road toward college and career.

You can be a part of that story and help us eliminate the learning gap. Donate now to help us continue changing lives and provide the kinds of opportunities our students need.