Jameson Hemmerly popped into Elizabeth Alexander’s classroom to ask for a little guidance. It was Wednesday, and the sixth-grader needed to know which after-school activity to go to: knitting, the mentoring program LEGION or Math Olympiad.
Alexander helped him consider his not-so-bad-to-have dilemma. He could go to knitting and Math Olympiad the next week, and Science Olympiad was also starting soon. So that afternoon, it was decided, he would attend LEGION.
“She definitely helps me get organized,” said Jameson, who is new to the district this year after moving from Ohio and already has found a plethora of after-school options to choose from.
“He’s really jumped in feet first,” Alexander said.
Stop in at Duncan Lake Middle School on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and you’ll find the place humming for an hour after school with activities that run the gamut of students’ interests. There’s knitting and basketball, chess and weight-lifting. They discuss page-turners in book clubs, color, strum guitars, play board and card games, meet with mentors, study, write, drum, and experiment with STEM activities.
The list goes on. Overseeing all the busy-ness is Alexander, the school’s enrichment program coordinator. She is a do-it all organizer who has a heart for helping students learn beyond the textbook and develop interests and talents, while having a lot of fun at the same time. She coordinates after-school classes, referred to as “eighth hour,” which are held for two seven-week sessions in the fall and in the winter. For the recent session, 147 students volunteered to attend.
Teach What You Know
Teachers step up to teach the classes based on their expertise, interests or hobbies. Seventeen classes recently concluded and many more will start next semester.
Seventh-grade math and science teacher Chad Gorton teaches guitar class and chess. “I love both,” he said. As sixth-grader Kyle Barthel strummed a tune, Gorton said he likes sharing his hobbies with students. “It’s rewarding. You see a lot of different sides of kids.”
Kyle said he likes to try new things, like weight training and Science Olympiad. “I like to have the option to do what I want to do and the choice to learn what I want to learn.”
The enrichment program at Duncan Lake and Kraft Meadows was created by former Principal Cheryl Davis, but for 10 years has been largely the result of work by Alexander and teachers willing to take on classes and programs.
For nine years, Alexander split her time between both buildings, though Kraft Meadows now has its own enrichment coordinator, Jill Maas. There have been calligraphy, sign language, cooking, walking, photography, running, scrapbooking, duct-tape crafts, crocheting clubs and Harry Potter and sci-fi book clubs.
On top of eighth-hour classes are mentor and leadership programs. Currently, 118 students pair up with 118 teen mentors from the high school in the League of Everyday Guys Inspiring Our Neighbors, and A More Beautiful You. And peer-mentoring groups match younger students with “big brothers” or “big sisters” to spend time with.
Alexander also helps run Math Olympiad and Science Olympiad, and advises Student Council and National Junior Honor Society, where students plan school events, activities and service-learning projects.
‘A Sense of Community’
Middle school is a key time to get students involved and engaged, which is why the enrichment program is so important, Alexander said.
“I think it really promotes a sense of community for the students. This isn’t just a place to come and sit in the classroom. This is a place where they are engaged, not only during school but after school and it’s with the teachers who are getting to know them better,” she said.
“When kids have ownership of the building they are in, that affects everything: behavior attitude, how they do in their classes. Middle school students want to connect with adults still and it’s another way for them to connect.”
Duncan Lake Principal Ryan Graham said Alexander’s hard work has built a program that benefits teachers and students.
“She is passionate about giving students options that allow them to explore during these years,” Graham said. “This a great way for students to have an additional level of engagement at school and be in a place that they are already comfortable in as students.”
Alexander, who has a masters degree in education, previously taught in a gifted and talented program in Ohio, and knows all students benefit from student-led enrichment. She now leads a Makerspace Club as an eighth-hour class in partnership with Kent District Library, where students build with Legos, tinker with circuit boards, create Rube Goldberg gadgets and design their own inventions.
“Part of what I do is expose them to things they are going to be exposed to at the high school level,” she said.