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Teaching Skaters, Building Scholars

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON

LOWELL Walking into the cavernous hallways of the Tsongas Arena, before arriving at the foot of the ice, children are seen before they're heard, their squealing laughter and the cold woosh of skates against ice echoing off the walls.

The fifth-graders peal across the skating rink, falling and dusting themselves off. The more timid ones cling to sideboards and wait for a hockey player to come by, grab their hands, and take them for a spin.

Every week, the UMass Lowell hockey team opens its doors to the fifth-graders from the Lowell Community Charter School, bringing them around for spins on the ice. And every week, three freshman members of the team make the trip to the school to participate in library programs with the students.

Called the River Hawk Reads program, the goal is to get students excited about reading and expose them to college life.

And hanging out with college hockey players is pretty fun, too.

"They talk about it every day. They walk around with the players' autographs," said Shawn Arcidiacono, a charter-school administrator who organized the sessions.

For the players, it's a chance to give a little back to their community.

"These kids, they come out and support us. It's nice to have a little fun with these guys," said UMass Lowell freshman player Brad King.

"We come and let loose and have a great time with them," added freshman Bobby Robins.

The program was hatched during a conversation between Arcidiacono and Chris MacKenzie, assistant ice hockey coach at UMass Lowell. Both agreed that having the players work with the fifth-graders was a good idea.

UMass Lowell provides the players, the ice time and the skates. Lowell Community Charter School provides the fifth-graders.

From the first time the students plowed onto the ice, it was a match made in heaven.

"When we fall, they encourage us to get back up," said 10-year-old Courtney Taylor. "It's cool and they're nice. They help us with the things we need to improve."

But skating is only half of the project. Once a week, several hockey players also make a trip to the charter school, teaming up with students on library projects and helping them to find books.

They took part in a scavenger hunt, where they had to find 10 books with criteria like "a picture book with an animal character" and "a book about plants." The education component puts the focus on literacy and helps instill the importance of reading, one of the goals of the program.

"We felt strongly it would send a message to the kids that the players think school was important," MacKenzie said.

The program ended this week, with the students making their final visit to the ice. The school and the hockey team plan to schedule more time for the program next year, and hope to organize campus trips for the students in the near future.

The campus visits would highlight yet another side benefit of the program getting the students to think about college early.

"Just hanging out with these guys and seeing what they're like, that gives them a sense of what college is like," MacKenzie said. "It's never too early to be thinking about it."