Family pages: Learning and fun continue after school day ends in SCASD

Gabi Todd runs past Mary Ledney, Evan Baxter and Brandon Zhang as they pass the exercise ball to each other using their feet during the physical education component of CEEL.
Gabi Todd runs past Mary Ledney, Evan Baxter and Brandon Zhang as they pass the exercise ball to each other using their feet during the physical education component of CEEL. Photo provided

School is officially over on a Tuesday afternoon at Easterly Parkway Elementary School, but education hasn’t ended.

Thirteen children sit in a circle in the music room. Instead of notes and scales, however, they’re learning about wings and fins — part of an after-school zoology class being led by two Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania children’s science museum staff members.

Peter Licona, a curriculum developer/science educator with the museum, holds up photos of a shark and a crow and asks for differences. One boy, raising his hand, explains the shark has a strong sense of smell while the crow has better eyesight.

“Excellent,” Licona says, smiling. “Are you a biologist?”

Later, the class divides into two activities. Teaching about camouflage, Licona tells his group to color in outlines of fish or birds so that the pictures will blend into backgrounds around the room and escape his detection.

Meanwhile, graduate assistant Rachel Chin’s group uses spoons, plastic forks and tongs to pick up grains of rice and dump them in plastic cups. The task simulates birds with different beaks trying to eat, a lesson in how evolution shapes physical characteristics.

“The birds with the large, spoon-shaped beaks did the best,” Chin says to the circle.

Elsewhere in the school, students are engaged in an art class while others enjoy free play or receive homework assistance — just another busy afternoon in the Community Education Extended Learning Program.

For the third year with CEEL, the State College Area School District has offered its blend of before- and after-school care with instruction in various subjects. Since starting with pilot programs at Radio Park and Park Forest elementary schools in the fall of 2013, CEEL has grown in size and popularity. Last fall, it expanded to sites at six elementary schools and now serves about 400 district children from kindergarten to fifth grade.

Corl Street and Lemont/Houserville elementary students, who don’t have CEEL sites at their schools, are bused to Easterly Parkway and Mount Nittany elementary schools, respectively, ensuring that every district elementary school student has access to the program.

“If someone had asked me two years ago if we would be where we are today, with six schools and almost 400 kids, I would have never predicted this level of success,” SCASD Community Education Coordinator Shannon Messick said.

Customizable for every student

CEEL bookends school days.

Families can drop off students at 7:30 a.m. for care before school, but most of the programming takes place after dismissal from about 3 to 6 p.m. Once students finish a snack and play a bit, they move on to different options.

Some parents enroll children in rotating art, culture, world languages, exercise, martial arts and science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes taught by community providers hired by the district. Other students enjoy more free play or do homework in the library or a quiet room while assisted by staff members.

Flexibility is a program hallmark. Students can attend part-time or vary their mix of activities depending on the day. Some opt for homework help to complete assignments or just free play to burn off energy.

“The thing I love most about CEEL, and that I think parents appreciate the most, is that the program is really customizable for every student,” Messick said. “Obviously, they all have different needs when they walk through the door.”

Full-time monthly fees are $300 or $350, with part-time attendance costing $65 per day. CEEL, however, has “given out a lot of scholarships this year” to families in need, Messick said.

“We want to make sure that CEEL’s serving all of our kids,” she said.

More than a school day extension

Community demand sparked CEEL.

Prior to CEEL, the district’s Community Education department offered some after-school programming, but it “operated in bits and spurts,” Messick said. A Wednesday art or STEM class, for instance, might have run just six weeks. In any case, sessions didn’t last the entire afternoon, leaving some working parents scrambling to pick up their children.

Calls began growing louder for full-time after-school care coupled with extended learning opportunities.

In the fall of 2012, Messick’s predecessor, Donna Ricketts, worked with school principals, district administrators and the school board to develop a survey. Elementary parents were asked what they wanted for after-school programming.

“When that survey came back, it was abundantly clear that parents weren’t necessarily dissatisfied with what they had for after-school programming and child care, they just wanted something different,” Messick said. “They were looking for more of an extension of the school day.”

“They were on board for Community Education offering an after-school program, and that’s how CEEL was born. We took full-time, after-school care, and the enrichment and extended learning programming that we had been doing for a long time, and merged them together to create something that kids could get a lot more out of.”

Bringing students together

Each week day, Patty McKenna oversees 77 children at Radio Park.

As the CEEL site supervisor, she also directs a staff mostly comprised of school staff members. That kind of tie to school communities help distinguish CEEL, she said.

“I think for the kids, the transition is easy, coming right from school,” McKenna said. “They’re familiar with the surroundings, they’re familiar with the staff, they’re familiar with their peers. We follow the same rules at CEEL as they follow during the school day.”

For many of her children, she said, the extended learning classes or free play groups such as “the Lego gang” — a bunch of dedicated Lego builders — provide a chance to visit with friends from other classes or different grades. When she asked two “chatty” fifth-graders last year why they kept talking during announcements, the boys said CEEL was their chance to catch up with each other because they no longer were classmates.

“We have students playing with and learning with children who are not their age, who they normally wouldn’t be interacting with during the school day,” McKenna said.

“So in a way, it really brings the school closer together because they’re all here. They’re dispersed during the day through the school, but in CEEL, they’re all together. I think it bonds the students in a school in a way that wouldn’t necessarily happen without the CEEL program.”

At CEEL’s Easterly Parkway site, friendships are a big deal for third-grader Cecelia Corro.

“I definitely enjoy being able to see friends from last year,” she said. “I’ve made a few new ones.”

She also has learned Chinese such as “ni hao” for “hello.” CEEL classes also teach French and Spanish.

Arlo Nicholas; his younger brother, Levi Nicholas; and friend Evan Casper prefered to focus on food. They agreed that Easterly serves “really good snacks,” as well as provides “fun” activities such as Legos, art, flag football and Millbrook Marsh Nature Center presentations.

“There’s a lot of variety of classes,” Arlo said.

But, Evan noted, CEEL is more than fun and games.

“It’s very educational,” he said.

Parents see and feel a difference

For many parents, CEEL has worked out as the district hoped.

Lisa Cohen tried cobbling together after-school care for her son when he was in kindergarten at Radio Park. Some days, her plan went, either she or her husband would come home early. Other days, they would use a sitter.

It wound up a “nightmare” of her taking most of the shifts.

“It was just very stressful, and so after that first year, I thought, ‘We need a better option for next year,’ ” she said.

A month later, CEEL started, and the Cohens gave it a try. Two years later, they’re still happy with their choice.

“(Our son) loves to come to CEEL,” Lisa Cohen said. “He gets mad if we pick him up early.”

Jennifer Ishler’s fourth-grade daughter attends CEEL before school as well as afterward, and that makes for smooth mornings.

“She’s always had school pride, but the fact that she comes in the morning, we never have to fight with her to get out of bed because she’s so ready to get here and jump into CEEL,” Ishler said.

Ishler said she appreciates the “safe, nurturing environment where people get to know her by name,” and the morning games, homework help, book club and “close-knit, family feel.”

“If we can’t be the ones sending her on the bus to school,” she said, “it feels really good as parents to be able to bring her here and drop her off, that she’s really well-cared for and well-looked after and well-liked.”

Chris Rosenblum is the communications director for the State College Area School District.

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