Afterschool program is underutilized


January 19, 2011
GORHAM — Organizers feel that local students are missing out on an opportunity to gain enrichment from Project Youth.

Project Youth is a program that is offered in the Gorham schools for sixth to eighth grade and in the Berlin schools up until High School. The program offers both homework help and enrichment activities, but program coordinators say that while there is plenty of participation in the homework help portion, the enrichment activities are often underutilized.

Naomi Levesque, the Gorham site coordinator said that in some cases, she thinks the low attendance may be caused by scheduling conflicts, while in other cases she feels that parents may not know the full value of the program. Levesque said she has 59 students enrolled in Gorham, with 35 of them attending on a daily basis. Those numbers are out of 109 students enrolled in sixth through eighth grade in Gorham Middle School. However, according to Levesque, most of those students only attend the homework help portion of the program, which runs from 2:17 p.m. to 3:17 p.m.

According to the 2000 census, the total number of kids in kindergarten to twelfth grade was 54,294,394. The Afterschool Alliance says that more than 15 million school-age children nationwide (27%) are on their own after school, with over one million of them in grades kindergarten through fifth.

Only 8.5 million children (15%) participate in after school programs and an additional 18.5 million (34%) would participate if their communities offered a quality after school program. In Berlin and Gorham, Project Youth fills the need for a quality after school program.

Cost for the program is a sliding fee scale based on the free and reduced lunch program, with attendance costing anywhere from $0.50 to $8 per day.

Project Youth Director, James Michalik, said that the program has a definite academic benefit and a positive social aspect. He said that at the end of the year, surveys are performed in the schools and that is how the benefits of the program are gauged. Out of more than 20 similar programs statewide, Michalik said, the students in Berlin ranked first in nine of twelve questions on the survey, demonstrating the positive effects of Project Youth.

The Gorham program moves at 3:30 p.m. over to the Family Resource Center for the enrichment part of the program. Levesque says she only has six regular students for this portion of the program, which is made up of learning activities for the students.

The activities consist of life skills learning (food safety and preparation and budgeting) and community service activities, including measuring snow depth and minimum temperatures for New Hampshire Fish and Game for a study on winter effects on deer populations.

Levesque says she feels that fewer students attend this portion for several reasons. One of those reasons may be scheduling conflicts, another may be parents not wanting to pay to send their middle school aged children to something they perceive as daycare, especially not when one of the parents is home, and there is also a misconception among the students themselves that the second half of the program is held at the Learning Center, which it is not.

Levesque said "That is not to say anything negative about the Gorham Community Learning Center, it is simply to say that Middle School students see that as the little kids' day care and therefore it wouldn't be 'cool' for them to be going there."

There were not statistics available to see if kids who participated in Project Youth ended up doing better academically in High School, but Levesque said that it would be interesting to find out. Levesque did say that some students who were involved in middle school now come and help with the program as tutors and in other capacities, something she attributes to helping values that were instilled in them in the program.

Melanie Smith, the Brown School coordinator, said that her students – grades kindergarten to second grade – have a higher participation than the higher grade levels, with less than half of the Brown School participants returning to the program once they have entered Hillside. Smith said she thinks this may be because parents don't worry as much about kids being at home after school once they are older. "For younger kids, they need a place to be, while parents think older kids can just go home," she said.

Smith said that parents may not choose to have their children participate at the Brown School level because the parents are home and think they can help their children with their homework, but Smith said they miss out on the socialization component of the program. The kids in Brown School learn about issues like bullying and get a chance to interact with other kids after school.

The activities offered by each coordinator are different and Smith holds monthly family dinners for students and their families as a unique activity for the Brown School's program.

Lindsay Demers, the Hillside and Berlin Junior High coordinator, said that the program may be underutilized because "…people perceive it as a place for kids needing extra help and don't think it's beneficial for all kids. They know it's here, but don't understand how it works." Demers said that in her opinion, ninety percent of the kids who participate benefit in some way, be it academically or socially.

Michalik recently took over as director for the program. From May to September of 2010 the program was without a director and according to Michalik, "it has taken me a few months to get my sea legs." Now however, he is ready to work on increasing outreach to students and parents to get them more involved.

Michalik said that he thinks in Gorham more so than Berlin, the enrichment part of the program is underutilized because the students in Gorham tend to be more involved with sports and other afterschool activities. In Berlin, he said that about the same number of students involved with the homework club are also involved with the enrichment activities.

At the moment, Michalik said, there is capacity to take in more children and if parents feel their child would benefit from the program, Michalik said, "we would love to have them."

Since the beginning of the school year this fall, the numbers for Project Youth have grown and with increased outreach, Michalik hopes to see more children participating in the program.

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