When the bell rings to end the school day at Mead Middle School, Jamie Cole and her team are just getting started.
“They go through the snack line first,” Cole said of the students in the after-school program at Mead, near I-135 and Mount Vernon.
“Then they have to sit down and work on homework, or they read. After that, it’s really up to them,” said Cole, the program coordinator.
About 100 kids who participate in the free program at Mead can play soccer, build model cars or learn to play electric guitar. They can sing along to YouTube music videos, paint ceramics or get extra help in math. All of them stay busy until 5 p.m., when they walk or ride bikes home, catch a bus or get picked up by a parent.
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Mead is one of 10 Wichita schools offering free supervised activities for youngsters after school through the Arts, Recreation and Tutoring for Success program. The program, supported by a 21st Century Community Learning Center federal grant, also offers English language, GED and parenting classes for adults.
In addition, 15 of Wichita’s 18 middle schools have free after-school programs managed and funded through a district partnership with the YMCA, which is celebrating its 20th year.
Elsewhere in Kansas, however, the demand for after-school programs far exceeds the supply. According to a recent survey conducted on behalf of Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, only 14 percent of Kansas students are enrolled in an after-school program, compared with 18 percent nationwide.
Nearly 92,000 Kansas kids – the vast majority of them middle and high school students – are without adult supervision in the afternoons, according to the “America After 3PM” survey.
“Kansas can do better,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance, which is based in Washington, D.C. “You do have some great programs in Kansas and some great leadership. … You have some terrific things going on on the ground. We just need to reach more people.”
All Wichita middle schools except Allison and Mayberry have free YMCA after-school programs, which feature physical fitness and enrichment activities and run through 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The programs serve more than 4,800 sixth- through eighth-graders; they are financed through a community development block grant, the United Way and the YMCA’s Strong Kids campaign.
“It gives the kids a safe place to go in those after-hours times, because between 3 and 5 (p.m.), that’s when kids get in the most trouble,” said Tyrone Baker, urban outreach director for the YMCA.
Advocates for free after-school programs say they particularly benefit low-income families in which parents work full time but can’t afford the pay-to-play sports leagues, music lessons, dance schools, private tutoring or other activities that make up after-school care for many middle- and upper-class parents.
Beyond that, said Marcia Dvorak, director of the Kansas Enrichment Network, organized after-school programs offer kids enriching experiences most can’t get at home, even if they’re safe and supervised there.
“Maybe they’re taking care of siblings, maybe they’re just being a couch potato,” Dvorak said of middle-school students. “Or sitting on the computer, with maybe some good programming and maybe not.”
After-school programs can be “an extension of learning that takes place in a different way, in a different atmosphere,” she said.
Cole, who teaches language arts at Mead Middle School as well as directing the after-school program, said the program is an incentive for many students to behave and do well in school.
“They want to be here. They have fun. This is their reward at the end of the day,” she said.
One recent afternoon, 12-year-old Timothy Carlisle painted the skull of a skeleton marionette he was assembling as part of a lesson on Dia de Muertos, a holiday observed in Mexico and other parts of the world.
“I like that there’s options,” he said. “You can choose whether you want to build a model car or if you want to play bass guitar, which I do sometimes. I’m part of our after-school garage band.”
If it weren’t for the program, Timothy said, he likely “would just ride my bike home and hang out. There’s more to do here.”
The middle-school programs feature weekly field trips to such places as the YMCA, bowling alleys and local ceramics studios, Cole said. Mead’s after-school soccer team recently played the Curtis team at a local indoor soccer facility, where many of the kids experienced artificial turf for the first time.
Middle school can be a tricky time for kids and parents, said Holly Wilson, grant manager for the Wichita ARTS program. Parents who counted on school-based, private-pay latchkey programs for their fifth-graders often are surprised to discover that they don’t exist in middle schools.
“Our students have families that work outside the home, and it is really hard sometimes for those families to arrange child care after school,” Wilson said. “They may be living paycheck to paycheck, they may not have the money, and so a lot of times our students are going home to an empty household.”
The ARTS program, in its second year, will be funded by a $3.2 million grant through June 2017, she said. It serves three middle schools, one K-8 and six elementary schools: Allen, Caldwell, Cessna, Gardiner, Linwood and Stanley.
Most Wichita elementary schools also have before- and after-school latchkey programs, which cost about $6 a day and have sliding-scale fees for low-income households.
Grant, of Afterschool Alliance, said the Wichita programs illustrate what communities can offer when schools partner with local businesses, churches and nonprofit groups.
“Every child who is unsupervised after school is a child potentially at risk,” she said. “Quality after-school programs keep kids safe, inspire them to learn and help working families.”