I was a principal for 20 years, many of them at West Elementary School, a school serving a high-needs community in Lancaster, Ohio. I feel that I wasn’t a good principal early on because I wasn’t paying attention to where the kids went after school. When the school bus pulled up, I assumed that they’d go home. And I assumed that home would be a place where they would be supervised and have a safe place to do homework. But I quickly learned that this was not the case for many of the students at West School. Most of our students hung around the playground, being bored or getting into fights. I realized that the same time children I was disciplining during the school day were also having disciplinary problems after school.
Thankfully, the West After School Center (WASC) helped to transform our school. The program is the brainchild of Ed Clum and several community volunteers. It targets our most at-risk students, many of whom are in danger of failing and falling behind.
From the beginning, I’ve worn both the hats of principal and afterschool director, working hand-in-hand with a band of committed volunteers. Ed Clum was our biggest champion. Ed operated a food shelter and believed that his network of volunteers could also serve as positive mentors and role models. Thanks to his efforts, we secured space from a local church to start the WASC program to provide one-on-one tutoring and mentoring for our students.
We launched the program with twenty of the children who were the most at-risk. The students in our school come from disadvantaged backgrounds where more than a third of their parents have no high school diplomas. Our dream was to give these kids the foundation they needed to graduate and go to college.
Our hard work paid off. We could see the program’s positive impact on the students. Their grades started to improve, they experienced less disciplinary problems, and their angst towards school dissipated. Their teachers also reported better attendance and praised them for completing their homework on time. Without the program, the kids who usually tested in the bottom percentile would have remained at the bottom.
One of the greatest benefits of our program is the positive mentoring relationships that developed. Program volunteers are truly invested in our students’ wellbeing. They take the time to listen and help students deal with the tough issues they face outside of the classroom. One of our students, Michael, was a third grader and part of the first cohort that I recommended for the program. He had several learning disabilities and was not doing well in school. One of our volunteers, Jack, signed up to be Michael’s mentor. Jack was a highway patrolman and we could see his impact on Michael immediately. He became the positive male role model that Michael needed in his life. Years later, Michael came back after graduating from high school to let me know that Jack had inspired him to become a police man.
I am proud to have been involved in an initiative that has been embraced by our community and helped kids and families in ways that have exceeded our initial dreams. Our program has grown, but the emphasis on adult volunteers supporting young children has remained an integral part of a plan to provide high quality afterschool programs in other schools and locations throughout the area. But even more than that, I am fortunate to have experienced the development of afterschool programs, especially 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), from the viewpoint of both a principal and afterschool program director.
I propose that principal-afterschool program director collaboration is one of the most important professional development needs facing afterschool leaders. I am excited to be involved with both of my professional associations, the National AfterSchool Association (NAA) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) as they work to bring school and afterschool leaders together, promote the important conversations that will support a seamless and extended learning day for children, and further the development of quality afterschool programs in schools and communities across the nation.