By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
When the final
bell rings at 3:42 each day at Dade County High School, watch out for
tornado-level gusts as hundreds of students – and conceivably some teachers,
too – heave sighs of relief.
But for some,
that bell is just when they start getting their second wind. As others stampede
homeward, they march determinedly into the library for Round 2. Ladies and
gentlemen, welcome to the 21st Century Community Learning Center.
“We just want
to make sure that everybody knows we’re here,” said Bethany Whittle.
It was a recent
après-sixth-period Tuesday and Ms. Whittle, program director of the
after-school initiative, and Cynthia Johnson, site coordinator at the high
school, had invited the Sentinel to the DCHS library to see what happens there
Sentinel found was a table of students working on math (the Sentinel can always
tell when people are working on math; it’s a look they get around the mouth),
others working on history, and, next door, another roomful of kids drawing and
“We have four
teachers here and four over at the middle school, and we have the art teacher
and the drama teacher, and then we have two teachers that no longer teach here
who do Odyssey of the Mind,” said Ms. Whittle.
Odyssey of the
Mind is a self-directed software program with a live teacher directing
progress. We’ll get to that in a minute. Meanwhile, Ms. Whittle explained the
21st Century Learning Center:
schools have had after-class programs in the past, she said, but never before
had there been one at the high school. “Last year was our first year, and then
it’s a five-year grant,” said Ms. Whittle.
Century Learning Center is a nationwide grant-funded federal initiative, she
said. The feds portion out Learning Center grant money to the state departments
of education, which in turn award it to local agencies – in Dade’s case, to
Lookout Mountain Community Services.
LMCS is a
nonprofit agency readers will recognize as the longtime provider of mental
health, developmental disability and substance abuse services in Dade. But
recently, said Ms. Whittle, the agency has sought to branch further into the
community at large.
“They wanted to
get into the schools and be more of a community helper,” she said. “Dade County
said they wanted this program, and that’s when the partnership happened. They
wrote this grant and they got it.”
teachers who staff the Learning Center, both at the high and middle school, are
employed by the school system but receive extra pay from LCMS, the fiduciary
member of the partnership, for the hours they put in after class.
herself is employed solely by LMCS. A certified early childhood and special
education teacher, she was hired last year right out of college by LMCS as site
director. This year she continues as site director at the middle school but
also acts as overall program director.
Johnson, who retired from the Alabama school system after 28 years of teaching,
is employed both by the B of E as a paraprofessional and by LMCS as site
director at the high school.
Center makes use of Ms. Johnson’s decades of classroom experience even as it
gives Ms. Whittle a chance to hone her own teaching skills. But the main point,
they said, is that it gives students an extra venue for learning and extra help
for doing so.
provides a snack for them. We have that at the very beginning and it’s free,”
said Ms. Johnson. “It’s encouraging them to come and learn. It’s a real
snack-and-place-to-hang-out aspect of the after-school program is especially
important in the middle school grades, said Ms. Whittle, when an adult might
not be waiting at home when a child gets off the bus. “Between the hours of
say, 3 and 5, parents are typically still at work,” she said. “So this gives
kids a safe place to be until their parents get home.”
But at the high
school level, she said, students are less likely to be in need of babysitting
and in fact might have cars to drive themselves home in, or even after-school
jobs to report to. “There are probably some kids that are here because their
parents work late,” said Ms. Whittle. “But most of them – especially at this
age – are coming because they need help.”
Center offers kids help with homework in any subject and tutoring in anything
they might be having trouble with; but it also reflects the statewide focus on
improving math scores, and the Sentinel didn’t have to be that good with
numbers to calculate who had the most students at his library table: Sean
Martin, the math teacher.
“Mr. Martin is
our math guru and he tries to tutor them in what they have problems with,” said
Ms. Johnson. “He tries to, I guess, re-teach some of the skills that they may
not have mastered to get them to pass.”
working with the students with books, pens and paper. History teacher Al
Barton, meanwhile, had two of his students plugged into computers on
Odysseyware. Odysseyware, he said, is computerized lesson modules that
correspond to classroom curriculum, in this case a chapter of American history
on which the girls were shortly to take a makeup test.
at the primary causes of the American Revolution, specifically our relations
with our mother country. It’s giving the all the skinny about what went wrong,”
said Barton. “So I thought this would be a good way to parallel that test
they’re going to have to be taking.”
In math and
history, the Learning Center caters to students who need extra time. But in her
subject, said art teacher Rachel Lawing, it’s more a matter of accommodating
students who want extra time.
“It’s the ones
who really love it and want to come and stay with it,” she said of the teens
painting, drawing and sculpting in her room next door. “I use the after-school
program at the high school, really, as independent study time.”
explained she’s not a full-time art teacher at either the high or middle school
these days but must divide her time between the two. Previously, she taught
students for 18-week sessions; now she has six weeks. “So any project that they
can give me a good, developed idea behind, I want to help them use this time
for that, because I don’t really get to all that stuff in class,” she said.
enrichment parts of the curriculum, said Ms. Whittle, help sell the Learning
Center to students.
they’re not required to come,” she said. “They don’t have to be here. That’s
why we have the fun stuff as well, so that maybe they’ll keep coming back.”
stuff” includes a drama class, in which Ms. Johnson said enrollees had just
performed their latest one-act play at a competition in Atlanta. “They didn’t
place this year, but they got a lot of laughs,” she said.
She and Ms.
Whittle are also trying to bring a guitar teacher from the middle school on
board, and they’re talking about starting a cooking class as well.
At the middle
school, Learning Center hours are 3:20-5:30 p.m., at the high school, 3:45- 6
p.m. There’s a summer session, too, which Ms. Johnson described as less formal.
Academically, she said, teachers focused on two core skills last summer, math
and reading, and otherwise dished out more than usual helpings of fun stuff,
such as trips to Cloudland Canyon and Crystal Caverns.
after-school program work? Sophomore Daisy Carey, 15, says: definitely.
Freshman year was a lot different than middle school, she said, and it wasn’t
long before she found herself failing several subjects. So she started coming
to the Learning Center.
“My mom kind of
made me to begin with, and every day it got easier for me to work in
classrooms,” said Ms. Carey. “I understood it better, because Mr. Martin helped
me with my math.”
Now, she says,
analytic geometry holds no terrors. “This year I’m making a 97,” she said. All
her other grades are A’s and B’s, too, she said (all right, except for one in
world history, and she’s working on that one).
Ms. Carey keeps
coming to the Learning Center because she wants to make high honor roll so her
mom will let her apply for her learner’s driving permit, and also because her
brother is in the middle school program and she rides the after-school bus home
But also, it’s
to spread her success around by acting as a tutor herself.
here to help people,” she said.