After-school Program Serves as Rallying Point

by Rodney Hutto

Industry closings and a transforming job market have dramatically altered the demographics of the Sherman, Texas, Independent School District during the past five years. Today approximately 25 percent of our students come from homes where English is the second language and 53 percent qualify as economically disadvantaged. Our students were changing and we needed to change as well.

As a school district, our duty is to do whatever it takes to help our students succeed. Every project we undertake is designed to meet their needs. We also know that a program’s success depends on the support and input of administrators, the board of education, teachers and the community. With a firm mission to prepare our students for the education process rather than remediate them later, we looked to after-school programs as one way to address our students’ changing needs.

We had operated numerous after-school programs at various campuses throughout the district but with no consistency. Their primary purpose was to keep the students in one place until they were picked up by parents or guardians. This model no longer was meeting students’ needs.

Targeting Programs

We focused on five questions as we planned changes to the after-school program:

• How should we maintain quality across all campuses yet still allow for each school’s individual needs?

• How could we maximize the funding available for optimum student support? Whom should we target?

• How could we finance a districtwide effort?

• How should we staff the program?

• How could we motivate teachers and students to continue a quality program throughout the year?

Our target populations were economically disadvantaged students who were experiencing academic difficulty, our non-English speaking students and our older students who were deficient in academic credits. To maintain consistency across campuses, the program had to meet the needs of these populations and consider the difference between age levels. The solution would require overcoming social issues and gaps in students’ academic preparation.

Making It Work

After assessing our target populations, we turned to our most critical component—funding. How could we equitably fund a program that would need to meet so many diverse needs?

At the elementary school, students need time to eat and wind down from the day’s activities before they can get to work. At the secondary level, food is also a real inducement to voluntary compliance, but the after-school program needs to have relevance and purpose for the students. At all levels, there must be meaningful work to be performed in an inviting setting. Each student must receive individualized help through technology or one-on-one tutoring.

We met the funding challenge by combining several sources of revenue. Primary revenue sources were state and federal funding for students who are economically disadvantaged or classified as at-risk. These block-grant funds (state compensatory education and Title I funds) were used to provide supplemental instruction. We also secured federal homeless grant funds through a university partnership, financial gifts from the community and monies from the general fund. In addition, we received new state allotments for accelerated mathematics initiatives and our accelerated reading initiatives. At two campuses the parents pay for a portion of the after-school program based on income.

Our next objective was finding and keeping quality personnel to staff the program. Most of the teachers who lead the after-school program are volunteers who have been teaching all day. To combat burnout, we scheduled alternating days for math/science and reading/language arts so teachers rotate into and out of the program every other day.

Transportation was, of course, an issue. We arranged public transportation for those students who could not walk home or who did not have a parent who could pick them up after the program. We also scheduled time during the day for middle school students to obtain tutoring in the core subjects in place of electives. In some cases, courses were double blocked in areas where students experienced difficulty. At the high school, tutorials were available before and after school as well as during lunch.

Sustaining Interest

Keeping everyone motivated is an ongoing challenge. Teachers and students alike tire of spending one or two more hours of school while others have left the premises. Therefore, the intensity of the instruction as well as the presentation must be enticing in the after-school program. In the lower grades, students are allowed to do physical activity or go outside before they buckle down for work. Older students need to be reminded of the purpose of the work and the potential payoff down the line.

Several community organizations also assist the students, especially in offering tutorial programs. We are planning a summer program for students who are unable to attend paid summer camps. The focus will be on physical fitness, character education and tutoring.

The community’s involvement in providing academic and financial assistance as well as supplemental after-school programs magnifies our school district efforts. The city of Sherman places great value in its youth and fully supports efforts that are designed to instill an unrelenting passion for excellence in all our children.

Rodney Hutto is superintendent of the Sherman Independent School District, 120 W. King St., Sherman, TX 75090. E-mail: rhutto@mail.shermanisd.net