Kids find potential in after-school program
A group of second-graders crowd around the laptop and projection screen. While a few of them hang bashfully to the back or near the teacher, most are up front, ready to get started with today's virtual field trip.
They know the ropes for these types of long-distance projects because they are the old hands, the big kids, at least as far as Kotzebue's June Nelson Elementary School K-2 afterschool club is concerned.
I was on the other side of that screen, using a Skype video call to connect with them.
"While you're interviewing them, we consider this a virtual field trip because we're expanding the kids' view of the world," said Kat Souser, an education specialist with SERRC - Alaska's Regional Resource Center, which runs the program.
When we were first talking about how to do the interview, we considered the usual options. But Souser wanted to find a way to get the kids as fully involved as they could be with the process.
In keeping with the theme of this year's program, which is 21st century students, we decided computers were the way to go.
"With our 21st century students it's a global world, you know?" said Souser. "Everything is at their fingertips. And so we work hard to get those kids comfortable using technology."
It seems to be catching on. When asked what their favorite part of the program is, a student named Jeffrey waved his hand in the air.
"Field trips!" he said.
"Where did you go on your field trip?" I asked.
"We went on a virtual field trip to the Alaska Zoo," he said matter-of-factly. "We didn't actually go there. We virtually saw where it was. Like, we saw where it was but it was on a computer screen."
For kids in Alaska's more remote communities, having the ability to see and do things outside of their towns is important, said Souser. Giving them equal access to museums and art galleries and even the zoo makes them feel more connected with the larger world they live in.
"It's another way to see that their voice is heard and their voice is important, because it's being heard by anyone in the world," said Souser. "They can share ideas with anybody and they aren't necessarily going to be judged on where they live or their background."
She pointed out that times have changed so much since when the parents' and grandparents' generations were growing up.
"Where we're going in education and where we're going as a global culture is that everything's accessible. How they learn and what they're going to get out of learning is so different than it used to be and that's so important to acknowledge. They've got so many different avenues than we did when we were younger," she said.
That's why program staff have tried to mix up what's possible for an afterschool program and break with some tradition. Not only do the kids have the typical play time, snacks, reading, and journaling, they also have computer lab time, social and emotional development, and healthy habits training.
The diversity of what's offered means there's a place for each, individual kid to fit in, said Souser.
"It's just going so smoothly," said Julie Jessal, grant coordinator for the Alaska Parent Information and Resource Center with SERRC. "You can tell how good the teachers are because the students are so relaxed, enjoying themselves. This is an extension on an already long day and yet they love being here. It really speaks for itself just in watching the kids."
SERRC is in year four of a five-year grant which is helping to fund the after-school program, geared toward students in high-poverty, low-performing schools.
The feedback they've received from parents is positive, said Souser. They are happy to know their kids have a safe, warm place to stay until 5 p.m., which gives the adults a full workday.
In a past year, parents requested that the students have homework time, as it was hard to get them focused so late in the evening once they picked them up. The program now includes that in its regular routine.
"They see us as something that is valuable to their child's education," said Souser. "It's not just a place for them to go, it's a place for them to grow and learn and try different ideas that they might not get to access during the school day."
One of the drawbacks of the program is its limited size. It can only take 60 students for the year-long class, which does make the student to teacher ratio a comfortable 15-to-1, but means there's always a waiting list to sign up.
"The kids love it," said elementary school teacher Janice Hadley. "As soon as it's time to start up the program the parents are hunting me down to sign their kids up."
Program staff are glad to have that relationship with parents as one of the grant goals is to strengthen family ties, along with strengthening relationship with community, developing social, cooperative, and physical health, and developing literacy and pre-literacy skills.
"Our whole goal is to help our students become well-rounded citizens to better the community," Souser said.
That's where the social and emotional well-being aspect of the curriculum really comes into play. It's a relatively new addition to the program and was developed to take a preventative approach to mental health.
Kids are encouraged to think about why they matter as individuals and then expand that understanding outward to why everyone matters.
No two children are exactly the same in how they learn and how they approach social situations, so Souser said, this pushes them to recognize their own unique self worth. That's the underlying goal of the program as a whole.
With rates of sexual assault, drug dependence, and alcoholism already high in Alaska and suicide rates in the area are even higher than the statewide average, Souser hopes programs like this will be able to engage students early on and help them make healthy choices and care about themselves and each other as they get older.
"Not all students are going to be successful during the school day. That's just a fact," said Souser. "But we offer them another way to be successful in the school and another way to see value in themselves. So we build that connection and make sure that those students know that they are loved and appreciated and valued for who they are."