When the dismissal bell rings at the end of the day, many students and staff like myself at Springport Middle School aren’t going home. Instead, we are choosing to go to Highfields Reaching Higher Afterschool Program. During this time, students receive one-on-one or small group time with a teacher, participate in whole group team-building activities, and explore different enrichment experiences of their choosing. These three opportunities contribute to a student’s success in different ways than the daytime classroom allows. Through the daily program and numerous unique field trips each year, our students are engaged in exciting new ways, including enrichment courses such as cooking, technology, theatre, active games, and photography. For our middle school students, this program is available at a perfect time in their growth and development as the program focuses on social and emotional learning in addition to academics.
One aspect about Reaching Higher that I love is how the program focuses on each individual student as a whole through its integration of social and emotional learning. The Reaching Higher group becomes a family over the course of the year and lasting friendships develop. Many times our students see needs within the community and work together to make sure those needs are met. Many students who struggle to find their place in the hustle of the middle school are seen, heard, and develop a sense of belonging within this program. Middle school can be such an uncertain and trying time that is full of change for many students. The program creates the time and structure to develop relationships that may never have been explored otherwise.
Aside from relationship building, students are able to develop and practice leadership roles among their peers and are given many chances for input and choice which increases engagement. Students involved in Reaching Higher are held to a high standard in terms of behavior which creates a different atmosphere than a normal classroom. This difference stems from the fact that our students are choosing to come to the program. It is viewed as a privilege to be able to attend each day. As a daytime teacher, I notice a distinct difference in the climate of our afterschool program and that keeps me coming back for more.
The biggest surprise I had when I began working in our afterschool program was the depth of relationships I was able to build with students. I’m their daytime classroom teacher and spend hours with most of them on a daily basis. Going into my first year with the program, I said to myself, “I know my students.” While I thought that statement may have been true at the time, I underestimated the value of this time spent with them outside of the walls of my classroom and the ways I could get to know them further. I got to know them on a deeper level: their likes, dislikes, hobbies, struggles, triumphs and I got to share a lot of laughs that I would have missed otherwise. This is possible because of the small group setting accompanied with fewer schedule restrictions than I encounter during the day.
While relationship building is important, a program wouldn’t be successful without a strong focus on academic achievement as well. An aspect that sets afterschool programs apart is the ability to set personal academic goals for each student at every level and track them consistently because of the small group size. The small group size allows for teaching to look very different for me at Reaching Higher. The difference is also contributed to the resources available. Our funding is sourced from a grant which gives us access to so many tools that my school isn’t able to afford for each classroom. One of my favorite topics to teach my students about is technology. They have the opportunity to use multiple kinds of robots, drones, experience and practice coding, video game design, and virtual reality. So not only are students learning and staying on track with their school work, they also are getting to explore new areas of interest that aren’t feasible during the school day. That alone, to me, makes afterschool programs invaluable.
In a perfect world all schools would (and should) have an afterschool program like Reaching Higher for their students. As a classroom teacher, I can see the benefits carry over into my classroom both socially and academically. Kids need a place where they can be kids, feel supported and valued. They also need a place to have fun and belong. Afterschool programs have the ability to be that place. How do I know? I’ve seen it happen.
Courtney Schmidt is a science teacher at Springport Middle School near Jackson, continues teaching afterschool, and has been an afterschool advocate for four years.