October 25, 2011
Central Students Make Connections
Central High School students are making positive connections after school. Lots of them.
More than 600 students have attended at least one session of Blazer Connections, Central's afterschool homework and enrichment program. The program, funded through a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, operates four days a week. Its official mission is to provide a safe environment where students are empowered to become competent and responsible community leaders of the future.
Central librarian Kathy Crain helps a student with homework
during Blazer Connections
In simpler terms, said coordinator John Hunziker, the purpose is to help students make connections to learning.
Elkhart received its first 21st Century grant in 2003. The focus of the grant has changed dramatically since then, transitioning from a "safe haven" grant to an academically based afterschool program.
In addition to Central, 21st Century Centers operate at Monger Elementary School and Pierre Moran Middle School.
The first hour of the program is focused on academic assistance, which is offered in a variety of subject areas with an emphasis on math and language arts. During the second hour, students choose from a variety of enrichment activities including wallyball, ping pong, music, art, creative writing, and Nintendo Wii.
At Central, students meet in the library for the academic session, and then move to classrooms for enrichment.
The program, which began at Central last fall, is open to all students, from those struggling to pass to Advanced Placement students who need a little extra practice time.
Hunziker said the program began in the cafeteria last October with a handful of students. To increase numbers, Hunziker and co-coordinator Jason Grasty went around the school rounding up students who were hanging out with nothing to do. "Come and spend an hour with us doing homework and we'll feed you," they told the students.
The students came. And they came. And they came. By the end of the 2010-2011 school year, the program had served more than 650 students at least once and doubled its initial estimate that 100 students would attend the program for at least 30 days.
Participation far exceeded the expectations of grant officials, who made Central reduce its original estimate to 50, claiming a high school would never be able to draw 100 students. The program is now serving between 70 and 100 students a day.
That is making it difficult, but not impossible, for Hunziker to reach one of his personal goals, which is to know the name of every Blazer Connection participant. "I want to be able to personally greet them when I see them in the hallway," he explained. "I want to build a rapport with them so that each student knows they have a friend here at Central and feels like they belong here."
Other goals of Hunziker and the Blazer Connections staff are to increase the graduation rate, to increase the number of students passing AP exams, and to have students earn 6 or more credits per year in their core classes, and 10 or more credits per year toward graduation.
Hunziker said the program is working. "Every senior who attended 30 days or more last year graduated," he reported. "Every student who attended 30 days or more earned at least 6.4 of 7 possible credits."
Central students connect to learning
Blazer Connections has students helping each other
with their homework
He said the program also fueled an increase in the number of students passing Advanced Placement exams, and led to improvement in students' engagement and behavior in the classroom.
"I had a parent tell me recently that his son, a college freshman, said starting Blazer Connections was the best thing Central ever did," Hunziker said.
Junior Danyielle Spencer said the program has been a lifesaver for her. She began coming a year ago to get help with her honors chemistry homework. She said the tutoring she received from her teacher was invaluable.
"I know I wouldn't have passed without it," Danyielle said. "It's so much easier to understand when it's one on one. The teacher is working at your level so it's not as difficult."
She continues to participate this year to help keep up her A average, admitting she needs a little extra attention in anatomy. But she also comes for the enrichment classes. She is learning how to play the guitar in Guitar Club and is a member of Blue Adrenalin, a female chorus that sings pop songs along the lines of "Glee."
Another benefit of the program is that it's provided educators with the opportunity to develop relationships with students they don't typically have any interaction with. Lisa Muñoz said she's made friends with a lot of students she doesn't have in her classes.
"It's an opportunity for me to meet a different group of students," she stated. "And it's good for the kids because it gives them one more adult in the school they can come to for help with academic or social problems. It's one more adult who cares about them."
And there are things they can teach each other, Muñoz added, pointing out she has taught students new study skills, while they have taught her how to play wallyball. "It's been a lot of fun," Muñoz said. “It's a nice, relaxed environment for all of us."
Muñoz said she especially appreciates that the entire Central staff, including athletic coaches, has bought into the afterschool program. Athletes who are struggling in class are required to attend the homework hour before they can practice with the team. Muñoz said it's a positive step that sends the right message to all students. [Go back to this issue's headlines to access other stories.]
This research also reveals that youth who participate in afterschool programs are less likely to use drugs, become teen parents, or become victims or perpetrators of crime, and that regular participation in afterschool programs is linked to improvements in standardized test scores.
Central librarian Kathy Crain said the most impressive thing about Blazer Connections is that students have taken ownership of the program. Not only can students get homework help from classroom teachers, fellow students are also pitching in. The National Honor Society provides tutors each Thursday and Crain said it's common to see one student helping another on any given day of the week.
"Look over there," she said pointing to a nearby table. "That student is failing in class. His friend is helping him with his homework. He'll get more out of this lesson than he will in the classroom because he's more comfortable with his friend and not afraid to ask questions."
Deb Weaver, director of community education, which runs the 21st CCLCs, said it's important to give children, including high school students, positive choices for their free time, citing research that shows the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are peak times for juvenile crime and experimentation with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and sex.
Blazer Connections staff members interact with each