After-school lessons that matter

Kindergartner Keontay Seabrook listens to a Kaleidoscope counselor as she works on homework in the after-school academic center at Memminger Elementary.

When school lets out at 2:30 at Sanders- Clyde Elementary, Jasmine Jones sticks around for an after-school program with a twist.

In dance class with Dancefx, they whip, they nae nae, they choreograph to “Uptown Funk.” In sessions with a group called Corpus Callosum, they write up and test out business plans like a snow cone shop. Throughout the course of the school year, Jasmine and her classmates will try out gardening, boat-building and maybe even a little puppeteering.

Jasmine, a third-grader on the A honor roll, loves it all. But her favorite part happens during the homework session, where she sometimes finishes early. “My favorite thing to do is help people when they need help,” Jasmine said. “I am good at my times tables, adding and subtraction.”

Jasmine has been participating in Kaleidoscope, a fee-based after-school program offered by the Charleston County School District that serves about 4,000 students in 45 elementary schools, offering a meal, some structure and a safe environment while parents are at work. This school year, in a partnership with the nonprofit organization Charleston Promise Neighborhood, the district is conducting an extended-learning pilot program at five high-poverty elementary schools: Sanders-Clyde, Mary Ford, Chicora, Memminger and Angel Oak.

The biggest change in the five schools’ Kaleidoscope programs this year is the presence of several community organizations offering extracurricular activities — in most cases free of charge to the students’ families. Four of the schools offer the program for free; Angel Oak follows the example of the other Kaleidoscope programs in the district by applying a sliding-scale fee based on family income.

Part of the theory behind the pilot program is that kids need more than just reading, writing and arithmetic to succeed — and that children at Title I schools, which serve large populations of low-income families, are missing out on some of those additional things.

ExpandED Schools, an organization advocating for expanded school days, estimates that by the time children from middle-class families reach the sixth grade they will have spent 6,000 more hours on learning activities than their peers who were born into poverty. That figure takes into account several studies showing income-based gaps in preschool, reading with parents, and extracurricular activities like sports and visits to museums.

Danielle Daniels, site coordinator for Kaleidoscope at Sanders-Clyde, a school on the upper east side of the Charleston peninsula, said the program has already made a difference in the lives of the 200 students in the pilot program. “They’re participating in enrichment activities that they would never get to do otherwise,” Daniels said.

She also said that offering the program for free — an arrangement made possible by $1 million in funding largely provided by Charleston Promise Neighborhood — was essential at her school, where all of the students receive free subsidized lunch due to their families’ level of income. “My students would not be able to attend Kaleidoscope if they had to pay a fee,” Daniels said.

In a Kaleidoscope enrichment class at Sanders-Clyde taught by artists and volunteers from Redux Contemporary Art Center, second-grader Kaidin Doctor showed off a few of the sketches from his sketchbook. There’s a woman with a purple face and a side-swept ponytail, and then there’s a tall, gangly owl named Hoot with red, orange and yellow plumage.

“He can’t fly yet,” Kaidin explained. “He’s too young.”

Chambers Austelle, a visual artist who helps lead the class, said she has spent part of her time with the students focusing on self-esteem — something they seemed to lack when she started in August.

“When I first came in, I realized it was very easy for them to feel defeated and be like, ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ ” Austelle said. “So we’ve been coming up with more guided projects ... We’re setting up projects where they’re able to be successful.” At the end of the semester, the students will present their own original, fully formed characters in the form of handmade puppets. Hoot might be flying by then.

Jason Sakran, school district’s director of expanded learning and community education, said that while the pilot program still has an academic focus, with qualified teachers being recruited to stay after school and help out, it also has a goal that goes beyond most academic standards.

“We’re working on unraveling years and years of generational poverty, years and years of things that the district has not done well,” Sakran said. “We’re not going to do it in a year. It takes time, so I want to set the expectation that we’re not going to turn it around overnight. We’re in for the long haul.”

“It’s not about giving the kid at Sanders-Clyde chess once a week. It’s about helping him to think about himself differently,” he added.

Wilma Lee, a resident of Bridgeview Village whose sons Stevon and Emone attend Kaleidoscope at Chicora Elementary, said the program has worked wonders for the children there.

“They learn a lot of good manners,” Lee said. “They learn to follow directions and take instruction.”

Katie McCabe, education initiatives program manager for Charleston Promise Neighborhood, said the pilot program focuses heavily on improving what educators call social and emotional learning. To test the pilot’s effectiveness, staff members rated students at the beginning of the school year using the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), a 72-item scale that attempts to measure factors like awareness and management of feelings. At the end of the pilot’s first year, they’ll rate the students again and see if they have improved.

For all its psychological and at times intangible goals, the Kaleidoscope pilot also has some programs in place to help with traditional learning. At Sanders-Clyde, Kaleidoscope students who have fallen behind grade level in their reading skills have the chance to participate in Reading Partners, an intensive one-on-one intervention.

Ericka Parker, a third-grade teacher at Sanders-Clyde, said that 11 of her students were reading on a first-grade level at the start of the school year. Eight of them enrolled in Kaleidoscope, and now she said they are reading at a mid-second-grade level or higher. She said she was thrilled when one of the students asked her during the school day if he could finish reading a book during Kaleidoscoipe.

“Every day we’re reading in class, and every day we’re reading in after-school,” Parker said. “It’s tremendous, just to see them feel more confident.”

Parker volunteered to help run the homework-help sessions at Kaleidoscope in part because she knew her students needed extra help. She said she gets paid a little extra for the work, but the hours are long, often stretching from 6:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.

Is it worth the effort? “They’re a lot more confident,” she said, smiling. “They participate a lot more in class.”

“It’s a long day, so if you’re going to be here, you’ve got to do it because you want to help them and you love it.”

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.