— When the final school bell rings each day at St. Stephen Elementary, Sha’Mya Jefferson doesn’t rush for the bus- or car-rider lines.

Grant recipients

Twenty-two grants were awarded to a total of 32 schools. Grants can cover programs at more than one school. Local recipients include:

St. Stephen Elementary, Berkeley County

Sanders Clyde Elementary/Middle and Haut Gap Middle, Charleston County

Colleton County Middle, Colleton County

Alston and River Oaks middle schools, Dorchester District 2

Wings for Kids at Chicora School of Communications and Memminger School of Global Studies, Charleston County

Instead, the fourth-grader heads to the cafeteria, the first stop in a free, three-hour after-school program called the St. Stephen Elementary Leadership Academy.

There, she gets a nutritious snack and does homework, then heads off to classrooms where small groups work on reading and math before participating in enrichment activities, such as cooking, art, chorus, dance, steel drum and etiquette.

“I really like (the program) because it’s educational, and it helps me with my school work,” Jefferson said. “Before this, most days I just went home after school.”

School Principal Elaine Norton knew that was the case for many of the 450 children at this Title 1 school in rural upper Berkeley County where 99 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunches.

“There is nothing after school other than whatever’s at their house,” she said. “There’s no gym, YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, and the library is very small. A lot of our students are latchkey kids.”

The academy kicked off in January, thanks to a $200,000 federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. The school learned in December it had won the four-year grant to start the program for 100 students.

In an area where students have significant academic and socio-economic barriers, the program fills a huge need, Norton said.

A recent school survey showed that nearly 40 percent of parents do not have high school diplomas, and almost 70 percent did not attend college. The median household income is just more than $20,000.

Across the state, 22 grants were awarded to schools and other organizations, including eight other programs in the Lowcountry, to operate community learning centers that provide academic and enrichment activities before and after school and during the summer.

In St. Stephen, academy participants from each grade level arrive at school 45 minutes before the 7:30 a.m. bell once a week to exercise. The after-school activities are every school day.

“The program allows students to participate in services and activities that they would not normally,” Norton said. “They get academic help and come home every day with their homework done. Soon, they’ll also have already eaten a hot meal.”

Starting March 1, a meal will be served daily through a grant from the Kids Cafe.

They’ll also take field trips to museums, parks and other cultural events.

Each evening, buses deliver the children to their homes.

“It wouldn’t work if we didn’t provide bus service because transportation is a barrier for many of our families,” Norton said. “When we told parents about the program, the No. 1 question asked was, ‘Are you going to be able to get them home?’ ”

Students were chosen to participate based on their grades and standardized tests. Among the program’s goals are to increase academic achievement and involvement in school activities and improve classroom discipline.

At first, organizers worried that parents would be upset when their child was singled out, but instead, “We are getting complaints from parents whose children weren’t chosen,” Norton said. “Parents are extremely supportive of the program. The only problem we are having is not being able to serve enough kids.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.