By Mike Marsee
It’s an hour after the final bell on a typical Wednesday and there’s still plenty of activity on the campus of Spencer County Middle School.
In the library, students are being introduced to engineering as they build and test Lego-based robots. In the gym, they are improving their archery skills with each arrow they fire. Just outside, another group is running laps around the parking lot – with the principal, no less.
On other days of the week, students might be playing Minecraft or ultimate Frisbee, focusing on photography, learning Spanish language and culture, competing in fantasy football or basketball, taking part in a U.S. Army-style physical readiness training, examining careers in health-related fields or taking part in STEM activities.
They are all part of Grizzlies Beyond the Bell, an after-school program that has become an unqualified success in less than two years by offering students an opportunity to get help with class assignments or catch up on homework and participate in an activity that interests them.
“I just think there’s such a need for it,” said director Karen Leff, who has coordinated the program since it launched at the start of the 2014-15 school year.
More than half of the school’s 665 students participate in at least one of the program’s clubs.
“It’s been much more successful than we envisioned. When the grants were written, we estimated 60 to 70 kids, and we average well over 100 every day,” Principal Matt Mercer said.
Grizzlies Beyond the Bell gives students two things they wouldn’t otherwise get during the same hours at their homes. Many of them would be alone at home until their parents return from work, with nothing much to do and no one to help them with their homework.
“We’re such a rural community, there’s nothing here for the kids to do. They like to hang out at McDonald’s, and we’re trying to cut that out and give them something to do – and just give them a little extra help,” Leff said.
The help comes from 10 certified teachers who work with the students on a rotating basis, as well as from 14 peer tutors hired from Spencer County High School.
“Having the high school kiddos has made a huge difference,” Leff said. “We did not do that our first year, and that’s something we learned we can’t do without. Having someone besides their daily teachers to work with really helps them out.”
Teachers tell Leff when a student needs help in a particular area and students also can use the time to catch up on homework or take makeup tests. In some cases, students use the time to catch up on their work before they’re off to another activity, such as an athletic event.
“They’re supervised, their homework is done and parents love it. Real quickly, this has become part of the culture not only for our school, but (also) for the community,” Mercer said.
After an hour, students are off to the clubs, most of which were formed from their own ideas.
“We do a survey with the kids to see what ideas they have, and different teachers came up with different ideas as well,” Leff said.
The club leaders are all volunteers, from the parent who runs the Lego robotics club to the local pastor who was the ringleader of a circus club that met during the first half of the school year.
The list of volunteers also includes school and district leaders, which was an idea that originated with the students. Mercer leads the running club, and Spencer County Schools Superintendent Chuck Adams is in charge of the archery club.
“Mr. Adams and I both, from day one, said, ‘If we’re going to make this successful, let’s get in the trenches with the teachers and the kids,’” Mercer said. “I’m really big on not asking our teachers or even our students to do things I’m not willing to do myself. And he has to be the only superintendent in the state that devotes one evening a week to a club in middle school.”
Both Adams and Assistant Superintendent Chuck Abell, who leads the archery club when Adams is away, are outdoorsmen who know how to handle a bow. Abell said both have enjoyed teaching archery skills to the students.
However, he said, the program’s most valuable player is Leff.
“Any program is only as good as the person responsible, and Miss Karen has done a great job building relationships in the community and building relationships with the students in this building,” Abell said. “She’s in every lunch period making personal connections with kids, recruiting those kids to be a part of this program and really targeting those that she feels like would benefit the most from this opportunity. And we have staff that’s really invested in the kids and want to do what’s best for moving them forward.”
Leff and her assistant are paid to lead the program, which encompasses everything from coordinating bus transportation to securing donations for materials. The teachers and tutors who work in the program’s first hour are paid as well.
Grizzlies Beyond the Bell, which has a four-week summer component, owes its existence to a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. The grant will fund the program for five years. The program must meet certain requirements of the grant to be eligible for renewal, which includes reductions in the number of students performing below proficiency in reading or mathematics, the number of bullying and harassment incidents and the number of suspensions related to drug use.
“I think our district sees a need for this, and regardless of whether we have the grant or not, I think it’s something they’ll try to keep,” Leff said.
Leff said the school’s test scores have improved since the program was created; last year it was named a Distinguished school for the first time.
“I’m not saying that’s because of the after-school program, but I think it definitely helps,” said Leff, who said she would love to see the program expanded to the entire district.
Mercer gives Grizzlies Beyond the Bell even more credit.
“I think it’s at the center of it,” the principal said. “I really believe high-performing schools have a strong relationship with their students and this has really strengthened our school culture. You have kids involved in things they want to be involved in. When they’re here, they’re happy.”
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Karen Leff email@example.com
Matt Mercer firstname.lastname@example.org
Chuck Abell email@example.com