Jaylyn Merchant, an upcoming sixth grader, looks through virtual reality goggles during a RCPS+ program at James Madison Middle School on Thursday. RCPS+ is a six-week program for students in elementary and middle school.

Rising sixth grader Damarien Trent and his classmates explored the depths of the ocean on a quest for sharks.

The objective of the scuba dive: count every toothy fish you see. Then remove the virtual reality goggles and use the tally to solve math problems.

Trent said the virtual journey was “very cool.” He gave a similar grade to his experience with RCPS+, Roanoke City Public Schools’ summer enrichment program. “I like it because we get to do a lot of different things besides school work,” he said.

RCPS+ kicked off last week with an enrollment of 3,400 elementary and middle school students, a record for the school division, which had a total enrollment of approximately 13,700 in the most recent school year.

Eight elementary schools, along with James Madison Middle, serve as hosts for the program. For six weeks, students will dive into subjects through interactive learning. The voluntary program isn’t assessment based.

Greg Johnston is the division’s executive director for elementary education and oversees RCPS+. Johnston attributed this year’s growth to word of mouth and improvements to the curriculum. He also credited the popularity of the elementary level programs for a higher enrollment among middle schoolers.

More than 700 rising sixth, seventh and eighth graders enrolled in RCPS+ this year. Johnston said the figure is typically closer to 500.

Trent said he has participated in RCPS+ since kindergarten. Another one of his memorable projects involved strapping a parachute to an egg to ensure it reached the floor safely, he said. The soon-to-be James Breckinridge Middle School student said his favorite subjects are science, math and reading. He wants to become a programmer.

Another rising sixth grader, Kristy Charles, said she enjoys RCPS+ because it gives her a head start. Mattie Felts, who will be a sixth grader at Woodrow Wilson this fall, said coding is her favorite activity.

Roanoke’s summer enrichment program launched in 2013 in an effort to counter “summer slide,” or the loss of academic skills and knowledge during summer break. Students can attend for free, with transportation and meals provided by the schools. Attendance is not mandatory.

Funding for RCPS+ comes mostly from Virginia’s extended-year instructional grants.

This year, the state approved $2.4 million in grant money for Roanoke’s programming at the elementary level. Roanoke was required to match a portion of the grant in order to receive it.

Kathleen Jackson, the division’s chief financial officer, said Roanoke must match 20 percent of the grant for RCPS+ schools in their first through third year of grant funding. Roanoke must use its local composite index of about 34 percent to match funding for schools that have participated for four or more years, Jackson said.

The local composite index determines a school system’s ability to pay education costs fundamental to the state’s standards of quality, according to the Virginia Department of Education. The figure is calculated using real property value, adjusted gross income and taxable retail sales.

The division also must use other local funds to cover other costs associated with RCPS+.

The division’s total estimated local cost, including grant matching, is about $1.3 million this year, Jackson said.

The grant funds help cover personnel, technology and transportation. RCPS+ has 242 teaching positions this year, Johnston said. Most of the teachers work for two- to three-week stretches rather than the full six weeks, Johnston said.

Math teacher Mathis Seal said the program gives students more freedom to explore and use technology.

Middle school students will design and then use a 3-D printer to create miniature cars, stop signs and trees to decorate a model city.

Students at James Madison Middle and the elementary schools will code robots and create video games. Students also will have a chance to study outer space through a mobile planetarium.

Reading is another prevalent part of RCPS+, as helping students reach grade-level reading is one of the state’s grant requirements. Johnston said hardback books are one of the RCPS+ purchases that benefit the division for years. Most of the new classroom materials, such as 3-D printers, are used throughout the school system.

Johnston said because the program is not mandatory and can overlap vacations and summer camps, attendance often varies from day to day.

“What we do believe is, if we can get the children to come, the curriculum will keep them,” Johnston said.

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