CORVALLIS – Some lucky Corvallis school kids can’t wait until their classes are done for the day, so that they can … stay at school.
The Corvallis School District sponsors an afterschool program for students in grades 5-12 that has 53 middle-schoolers and more than 100 high-school scholars staying to work on their studies, to learn fun skills from community members, and just to play and be kids with a little unstructured time.
The Corvallis School District is participating in the federally funded “Twenty-First Century Community Learning Center” afterschool program, providing academic enrichment opportunities and recreational activities for students in grades 5-12.
Enrollment is open to all students on a first-come, first-served, space available basis. Students can pick and choose which days to attend, but once there they must stay until 5:30 p.m., unless a parent picks them up or provides written permission to leave earlier.
That such an afterschool resource center exists for middle-schoolers is a bit out of the ordinary. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 19 percent of such centers serve middle-schoolers, the majority being aimed at elementary school students.
“There are not a lot of successful afterschool programs for middle school kids around the state,” says Corvallis Middle School Principal Rich Durgin.
The fact that Corvallis has such a program, and that it thrives, is a reflection on the coordinators and teachers who run it, and on the students themselves.
Jenell Semple directs the middle school program, and Laura Wathen is assistant director. Wathen wrangles the kids in grades 5-6, and Semple takes the kids in grades 7-8.
Between the two of them, they have 53 students enrolled in the program, though on a given day only half that number may show up.
Kids who attend regularly are more inclined to do well academically, Wathen noted.
Durgin credits the duo with building up a successful program. “They know how to build relationships with middle school kids,” he observed.
They leverage those strong relationships to build stronger academic skills, and to help students improve their performance.
“I truly believe that all kids want to do well,” says Wathen.
To help them with that, Semple and Wathen work on goal-setting, something with which many kids that age have little experience. They know what their parents and their teachers expect of them but this is a chance for them to decide what they want for themselves, Semple explained.
The goals may be academic, personal, or behavioral. Wathen said that, next, “I’ll get really specific about what they need to do to achieve that goal,” whether it’s turning in all their assignments or getting tutoring help in a specific subject.
“We each have to do goal-setting for our principals,” Wathen said of herself and her counterparts, Semple and Sarah Windsor, who runs the high school program.
“It reflects what we’re asking of the kids, so we can relate back to them,” she noted.
“I enjoy building relationships with the kids, seeing them realize that they can be successful, when they achieve their goals,” says Semple.
The coordinators keep a file on each student that is constantly updated, so they know what homework assignments are due, and when they have a big test coming up for which they might need to study.
That means lots of prep work for Semple and Wathen. Semple says she puts in a 40-hour week, of which only 10 are spent with the kids.
“The easiest part is being with the kids,” she said. “I would trade in all my paperwork and grantwriting for more of that.”
“There’s lots of digging, and planning activities, and planning for kids with no homework assignments that day,” said Semple.
“It’s learning what the idea of studying is,” agreed Wathen. “They think that when their homework is done, they’re done. I know what their assignments are,” she said, and can direct them to further studies.
Durgin says he can see the academic improvement in kids who stay for the program, and Department of Education figures back him up. Nationwide, teachers reported that over three quarters of regular program participants showed improvement in homework completion and class participation, while 72 percent of regular participants showed improvements in student behavior.
Wathen said that the high school program is much more focused on academic achievement, while the middle-schoolers need help with social skills as well.
The academic focus is woven into the program, though it’s sometimes what Wathen refers to as “stealth learning,” sneaking a lesson in as part of a fun activity.
The 5th-6th grade and high school programs are in the third year of a five-year grant; grades 7-8 are in the fourth year of a five-year grant. Durgin expects that the middle school will reapply when this grant runs out.
On a typical day, students meet after the last bell, for announcements and a snack. They then spend an hour or more studying or receiving tutoring help from teachers or high school students who work for the program as paid “mentors.”
When their studies are complete, they may have a planned activity, or unstructured play time. Activities include having members of the community come in and share skills or activities, such as the women who come knit with them every Wednesday, or another who has been doing a rocketry project for them. They just started doing a Zumba fitness class once a week, all activities directed by community volunteers.
“You never know what’s going to make a kid light up,” Wathen observed. “We’ve been surprised.”
They enjoy open-ended time to play tag and be kids, she said, but they also enjoy the activities, such as when April Johnson visited to teach improv comedy skills, which Wathen said was a natural for kids that age.
Semple also uses “success field trips” to reward the group when they achieve goals. They may be as simple as a campfire at Lake Como, or going out for pizza, but there are always kids in the group for whom that’s something rare.
According to Semple, “The kids who are served by our program have a chance to make a difference, through opportunities and learning that are different from the regular school day. Some of these kids have never experienced s’mores, or gone bowling or hiking, things that people take for granted.”
She feels that the more well-rounded the kids’ lives are, the greater the likelihood of their success.
Not only teachers and counselors like what they see. “Parents enjoy seeing the grades come up,” Wathen observed, adding that “it’s a safe place, the kids get a snack and some tutoring,” all things that parents appreciate.
Even the kids appreciate the difference the program makes. Middle school participant Rebecca Cooper, standing on the playground while her classmates jetted off some excess energy before settling down for an activity, said, “If it wasn’t for the after school program, I probably wouldn’t like school.”
She said she’s happy with her grades, thanks to the help she gets in math and science. “I’m doing really well,” she nodded, happily. She credited her math teacher, Ms. Stacy Jessop, with helping her.
“She keeps breaking it down for me, until I get it,” she said.
“She knows a thousand different ways to teach one problem,” agreed Wathen, citing Jessop as just one among many teachers who put in extra time to help the kids after class hours.
“I do think they like seeing their grades go up,” Wathen said of the kids. “It’s not so much about their grade, it’s how they feel about it. When you see a kid ‘get it,’ you see that self-esteem rise, they’re happy about it. I just love seeing that.”
She said they try to strike a balance between tutoring and academics, and play. They recognize that the kids have already had a full day of classes, but still have work to do, and they have high expectations of them.
“We like to say we work hard, we play hard.”
Even the playing, though, is helping to build social skills at that age, as the middle-schoolers look up to their high school mentors, who are called on as tutors, teacher’s aides, and sometimes just to go out and shoot hoops with the kids.
“It’s very cool, all the way around, they get attached to them as role models, and miss them when they move on. They get possessive,” said Wathen.
The same goes for the community members who offer enrichment activities. “It’s the ladies, not the knitting,” suggested Wathen, who says that Karen Shockley and Susan Paceley always bring treats for the kids, and often visit after school, even when it’s not “their” day.
The program also has a valuable partnership with the county 4-H program, which has been a great resource not only for volunteers, but also to help out with the cost of materials for crafts and other activities.
Perhaps the most important partnership in the middle school program is between Semple and Wathen, who obviously love their jobs, and enjoy working together.
“It’s very fun working with Laura,” Semple avowed, and Wathen in turn acknowledged that “Jenell’s doing an awesome job with the seventh- and eighth-graders, planting seeds about their future.”
“People don’t realize what an impact this has on the kids,” Wathen added. “They’re building life-long skills.”