Soehl Middle School students in the 21st Century Community Learning Center after-school program, where about one third of the school’s students get extra help with their assignments, enrichment programs focusing on STEM, and a good dose of fun and recreation.

By Gary Miller

When a working parent can’t pick up a student at the end of the school day, they need a safe place for the child to spend those few hours. But when that safe place is also somewhere the child can learn and thrive – and have fun – it’s a win-win situation.

That’s the case with the 21st Century Community Learning Center that operates every day at Soehl Middle School.

About a third of the students at Soehl spend their afterschool hours getting homework help, learning new topics outside their regular classroom curriculum, doing recreational activities, and enjoying fun and enriching assemblies and trips. Students finally leave the school around 5:45.

“The main goal of our 21st Century Community Learning Center is to offer a safe and nurturing environment for our students, where they can experience a variety of enrichment opportunities during an extended school day,” said Isabella Scocozza, Soehl vice principal and the director of the 21st Century program.

The program is funded through a grant from the New Jersey Department of Education for $425,000 a year, which covers the costs of staff and supplies, as well as a daily snack of a sandwich, juice and fruit for the students. This is Soehl’s 13th year in the program, and the current grant runs through the 2018-19 school year.

The program has about 175 students at a time, but because students come in and out of the program because of other after-school activities, 21st Century touches the lives of about 250 students through the year.

teacher helping students in class at Soehl's 21st century after-school program  Students working in class at Soehl Middle School's 21st Century Program

Each student starts their extended school day with a teacher and paraprofessional tutoring them, checking their assignments and preparing them for upcoming tests or assessments.

In the second hour, the class moves on to a rotating enrichment period, where students get extra work in language arts, math, technology or physical education.

During one session recently, students were working with Ozobots, tiny robots that help students learn computer coding. Students drew paths on paper with different colored specialized markers. The Ozobots have the ability to follow the tracks draw by the markers, and make different maneuvers based on the patterns of colors the students use – an elementary forming of coding.

“The theme of the 21st Century Community Learning Center is science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Scocozza said. “Many of our classes coordinated throughout the after-school program integrate STEM activities. This will prepare our after-school students for further STEM-related studies and careers in the near future.”

student using ozobots in soehl middle school's 21st century program  Two girls working with ozobots in class at Soehl Middle School's 21st Century Program

In the third hour, students get a variety of recreational programs to choose from, including open gym, crocheting, color guard, chess, fitness, yoga, jewelry making, painting, game room, movie screening and media.

As part of the requirements of the state grant, the Soehl program has an outside evaluator gather data on its student participants, including report cards, progress reports, incidents of misconduct, attendance records, and state assessment scores. The evaluator also does site visits and interviews with students and parents.

“All of our evaluation reports each year have shown growth and gains in all areas,” Scocozza said.

In addition to the in-class lessons and activities, the program also offers monthly family events and class trips. Some upcoming family events include a trip to an art studio, bowling nights, yoga night and paint night. Some trips – which run in the after-school hours – include roller skating, Liberty Science Center, golf and bowling.

Students raising their hands during Hip Hop Fundamentals show at Soehl Middle School Students learning dance moves from Hip Hop Fundamentals performer at Soehl Middle School

On a recent day, all the students in the program were treated to an assembly in the school’s auditorium featuring a group called Hip Hop Fundamentals. The students were excited to learn about the history of hip hop music and dancing, going back to its roots in New York in the 1970s. The four dancers put on a show, then brought the student onstage to teach them some of their moves. Most importantly, they taught the students the four fundamental principles of hip hop are love, peace, unity and having fun.

The students had a good time – especially when some of their teachers were brought onstage to dance – and were learning outside the traditional classroom.

“21st Century students have an opportunity to experience a wide variety of academic activities that support the school curriculum,” Scocozza said.