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Cromwell-Wright after-school program expansion draws increased participation

Since 2001, the Cromwell-Wright School District has invested a lot of energy in keeping kids busy and safe in the after-school hours until parents get home from work. It takes a lot of money to operate after-school activities, but the district in...

Since 2001, the Cromwell-Wright School District has invested a lot of energy in keeping kids busy and safe in the after-school hours until parents get home from work. It takes a lot of money to operate after-school activities, but the district invested available funds in a fledgling after-school program.

In 2002, Cromwell-Wright's after-school program was awarded a Minnesota Department of Education grant, which was promptly withdrawn after only one year (2003) due to state budget shortfalls. Not wanting to discontinue a program that had attracted participation from 72 percent of the K-6 grade elementary population, stakeholders scaled the program back and scrambled to maintain staffing. Then in 2007, the district applied for and was awarded a Minnesota Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Center's grant for after-school programming. This funding expanded the popular after-school program, bringing new resources and adding after-school activities for 7-12th grade students who had not been served in earlier efforts. Cromwell-Wright School district was awarded $82,000 per year for up to three years, and was one of only 14 programs in Minnesota to earn the funding for the 2007-08 school year.

The new program began operating during the 2007-08 school year. The added funding brought with it several new expectations for after-school programming.

First of all, the "strings" that went with receiving the grant money required that a good share of the after-school time be spent connecting school-day learning activities with what went on in the after-school program. This meant that several Cromwell-Wright teachers would get involved in planning and working in the after-school program. The focus became a lot more academic than it had in the past.

Academic activities involving district teachers that have been very popular with students include a young writers group and a weekly science club.

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The funding supported hiring of a new coordinator, who turned out to be Connie Skarbakka. Skarbakka has past experience in business management and has a bachelor's degree in elementary education from St. Cloud State University. Skarbakka describes her recent months with the program as "rewarding, fun, and occasionally quite challenging."

Also new to the after-school program this year are opportunities in the arts and in career exploration.

Another new face connected to the after-school program is that of Melissa Korpela who coordinates activities for 7-12 grade students. Korpela is working on an education degree through University of Wisconsin-Superior independent study.

Other individuals who work with the after-school program include Lois Sulkowski, Cindye Richards and Heather Cahoon.

While the after-school programming at Cromwell-Wright was always popular with younger students, attendance has reached new levels this year, for both elementary and secondary students. On an average day, there are 40-45 students in attendance from a total K-12 student population of approximately 320.

New art activities, including a Puppet Theatre built by Skarbakka's father, art projects led by Cromwell-Wright art teacher Rachel Matuszak, and activities led by guest artists are extremely popular with students. During one such recent art activity in early March, guest artists Fleta Carol and David Lauer from Cloquet led approximately 25 students in a mushroom painting project. Amber, a fourth-grade student, spoke for the group when she said, "This is awesome! Can you come back tomorrow?" Students have also been exposed to theater arts through two drama workshops with local artist Mary Rose Varo. Upcoming arts events include a visit by Minnesota author William Durbin, a variety show to showcase talents of after-school students, and a creative writing workshop.

The career exploration activities offered include student introduction to the Minnesota Career Information System (MCIS) in-depth student self-assessment and portfolio development program. Participating students have access to a wealth of information about careers, along with survey tools which help them determine what career direction might be good for them.

"The MCIS will be a great opportunity for the students to be able to assess their own interests and direct themselves into possible educational and career paths," said Melissa Korpela, who leads these activities. She recently took eight students to a young women's leadership and career conference at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn., where they had the opportunity to attend a variety of workshops throughout the day. Each session was run by a different professional with the intent of allowing these girls the opportunity to learn about many different careers, both traditional and nontraditional for their gender.

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While there is an increased focus on academics and career preparation in the after-school program, Skarbakka acknowledges that physical activity is just as important as it was when the program started.

"These kids need to move around after sitting and working in school all day - so we always spend time outdoors or doing physical activities indoors to get their blood moving," she said. "This rejuvenates the kids before we start homework and other activities."

Skarbakka also points to the purpose the after-school program serves in keeping kids busy and safe during the period of time between the end of the school day and when parents get home from work. This is a critical time for many children. Prior to after-school programming, many were home alone or perhaps taking care of younger siblings until parents arrived home from work. The after-school program helps parents as well as kids who were in that situation.

Related Topics: CROMWELL
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