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Learning Center site manager Cynthia Johnson (right) and program director Bethany Whittle (center) show off sophomore Daisy Carey, one of their star pupils. The 15-year-old went from failing last year to honor roll this one.

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 after hours. 

What the 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 painting. 

“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:

The elementary 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.

The 21st 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.”  

Thus the 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. 

Ms. Whittle 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.

And Cynthia 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. 

The Learning 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.

“The program 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 positive.”

The 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.” 

The Learning 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.”

Martin was 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. 

“We’re looking 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.” 

Ms. Lawing 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.

These enrichment parts of the curriculum, said Ms. Whittle, help sell the Learning Center to students. 

“Typically, 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.”

Other “fun 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.

Does the 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 with him. 

But also, it’s to spread her success around by acting as a tutor herself. 

“Sometimes I’m here to help people,” she said. 







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